Philosophy is mostly, for me, about how we live. Living simply is not a simple task; it’s actually damn hard work to let things go, to ignore the norms, and to cut back on the acquisition of things. I have chosen my own lifestyle, but I don’t pretend to know that it’s better than other lifestyles, even though I am routinely cynical of those who chase money and fame. I suspect those folks find their meanings in those activities. But I do think life is about finding meanings. It’s no doubt one reason we have religions—they are able to give us generic meaning without too much thought or hard work. And whatever their actual results in the world, they usually tell a good story of faith and love. But religions have never worked well for me—too many questions, too much nonsense, too many clothes that made me feel uncomfortable. So, I turned instead to find meanings in the little things around me—folk paintings, music, the woods, good homemade meals, pets, and, most of all, friends. No big gods for me; no cosmic creation stories or big bangs—just sharing warmth and beauty wherever I can. The three little pieces that follow are about places I have found myself and what I have thought about what things mean to me—if these pieces speak at all to others, I would expect it to be only by analogy. Some folks have a special coffee shop, a home pub, or a small café they ritually haunt. Each of us has one journey, however many turns that journey may make—if we don’t find our meanings on the roads we take, I can only think we will find ourselves unhappy. Perhaps the religion thing can override such unhappiness for some. But I suspect many of us are tied to the simple meanings of favorite clothing, favorite meals, and favorite little rituals we perform from cycling on Sunday mornings to dancing alone in our kitchens to having soup on a cold fall day.
People usually make fun of philosophy that purports to be about “the meaning of life.” This perhaps is what allowed Monty Python to make such wonderful fun of the question—but in their dark humor lies the truth that we all ask this question whether openly or not. I do not think there is one “meaning of life.” But I do think we find and make meanings in our lives—and that’s the point. The most important question that faces us is the one we never wish to ask in all seriousness because, no doubt, we know we will not find a single satisfying answer—except perhaps in blindly adopting some religious doctrine. Not everyone will find meaning and happiness living alone in a small cabin, or bitching in an airport at 5:30 in the morning, or living with the trees of northern forests. But those particulars are not the point—rather, it’s a question of where we find ourselves to feel “at home.” My hunch is that when we do feel at home, we will also be able to find the meanings of life that sustain us. The little pieces that follow are simple reflections on some of my own moments of feeling at home—or not. As with Thoreau’s Walden, they are not intended as any kind of roadmap for anyone else’s life, but as a mild provocation to reflect on one’s own “at homeness” and meanings of life.
When I first moved to southern Illinois some years ago, I ended up living in a poor, rural area nicknamed “Felony Acres.” On my street and the next two beside mine, there were at least seven older single individuals living alone in very small houses or trailers. From the outside, it likely appeared that we all lived squalid lives. But that was not the case. I came to know these folks reasonably well—they were interesting. What I found most interesting is that they had no televisions and only the meanest of digital set-ups. They read books and they wrote poetry—one was a full blown mystic. Two were Viet Nam vets and one a Viet Nam widow. They had cats and dogs as their primary friends. One made soap and homemade bug repellent. They were poor—mostly on small Social Security and veteran’s pensions; but they lived reflectively and they gave love when they couldn’t give anything else. They were an inspiration to the little piece that follows.
Here we sit in little houses in little rooms
with wood and colorful window dressings
and all the knick knacks we’ve decided were worth keeping
on little shelves either for their beauty or the memories they hold.
Those of us who live alone.
Sometimes alone is lonely;
but most of the time it’s just comfortable.
Eating dinner at whatever time in whatever clothes we please,
with radio and stereo filling the little world with competing sounds—
each getting attention from one ear unless something special sounds
and both ears go in one direction.
We pull a chair back from the kitchen table that is littered with things half-done,
grab a guitar from the floor
or the corner
or the wall
and sing as feelingly as one feels—
“and ya tell me over and over and over again,
ya don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”
We are men and women growing old.
Maybe we tried living with others;
maybe we just think we failed at love;
maybe we chose this with eyes open;
maybe we just got left behind—
and maybe all of these are true.
This little place is a snail’s shell, a cocoon;
a cliff dwelling where the rain can’t reach.
It has a cat or a dog or both
and they walk the little rooms with us
and sleep when we are in our usual groove
and go crazy when we are out of it.
Lots of hot water—coffee after coffee;
tea to settle the worlds,
and long hot baths with wine.
“And Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river.”
So easy to dream here and to turn off the spigot of worldly flotsam.
How does anyone else read or write
or just think
without some little place like this?
Thinking seems such a rare event in the world these days—
I don’t mean calculating or analyzing or producing or persuading.
Just gentle attention to the things that cross one’s mind.
And whatever messes occur, such a deep and sweet joy in just cleaning—
the smell of one’s own sun-fresh towel,
the dishes done and the waft of hot bread,
the little indoor garden finally set to rights.
Sweeping it all out on a sunny spring morning—
letting the outside in through screens.
Most all these things.
In being alone there is just a sweetness in attending to such little things
and realizing they make you happy in a way.
Oh, and then the rushes of madness when your soul is about to explode—
screaming out at the universe until the cat or dog is completely freaked.
Crawling drunk on the floor happily
and talking to the mirror as you pass—
standing in one place just to take in the cosmos.
Playing basketball with a ball of tinfoil
and an empty can of dog meat or and old soup pan.
Enjoying all the little specials—
a favorite coffee cup;
a beautiful blue-green fired wine goblet;
the softest and most ripped flannel shirt;
the crazy hair, clean and unkempt;
the coziest slip-on slippers.
“Playin solitaire til dawn, with a deck of 51;
smoking cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo;
now don’t tell me, I got nothin’ to do.”
I always think about the beats in these little places—
weary, worn, beat, beatified.
Hunkering down and waiting for winter to push against the walls,
and keeping it at bay—barely—with some form of fire.
What could be more human?
Here we are on a Sunday morning when all is quiet;
when others go off to churches,
I will enjoy my second cup of coffee;
when others go shopping, I will bake a loaf of bread;
when others freeze before their televisions, I will read of ancient stories
and write a song.
There is nice warm wood in this place;
I know where all the imperfections are;
I know no one will care to bother me;
I will slice the bread hot on the board
and drench it in as much butter as I want.
I’m not comparing lives.
I just know that for some of us,
this little kitchen with its knick knacks and popcorn popper
and well-worn hotpads, and the smell of incense and orange
minds its own business and brings its own joys.
Where else would an old man go?
“Got no words, for this crazy world—
gonna seek salvation, baby on my own dime.”
Some years ago I went to visit friends in Boston. On the way home, I took a tired Uber ride to Logan airport at 4-something in the morning to catch a flight back to Dallas. I’ve always found airports a marvelous place for feeling not at home and for people watching. There is something surreal about early morning airports and that morning I just wrote it down as I sat in one of those long rows of attached plastic chairs with some television droning on and the constant interruptions of public safety warnings, lost items, and boarding and departure updates. A genuine cacophony. I felt, as the title says, unhinged from myself and the world.
It’s not a “good old days” thing, though I did have some of those. The world, so far as I can tell, moves in one direction—from past to future. Royce was right when he said that each act we commit cuts off an infinity of possible other acts. But he failed to focus on the fact that every act also opens a new infinity of possibilities. I don’t know where things are going but I can see something of where we are. In my youth, folks often stayed home or came home; not so much anymore. Sitting this morning in Logan airport, I see folks literally flying everywhere; flying, running, worrying, hurrying. The background music in stark contrast trying to calm everyone, but no one even seems to hear. Checking phones, looking at signs in stunned confusion, trying to ask frantic people in blue suits behind counters about their confusions. Flying from, to, somewhere, nowhere, anywhere? I know there are possibilities here, but one of the costs is that the settled warmth of homes—of knowing what to expect in the next few days and few years; of knowing what your own little life is worth in a home community—is gone missing.
I too sit here in this airport—televisions, PA announcements, beeping carts, talking, crying, impatience, tiredness, tiredness, tiredness. To what end—some end surely if one had but the time to think about it. Maybe when I get there I’ll have time—maybe. Or maybe I’ll just be running again to catch up until the next time I race to an airport. From those old days I liked the time to settle my heart rate just by feeling it without a wristband to tell what the count was. How did we become so unhinged from ourselves that we need wristbands to tell how hard our hearts are beating? How can we even tell we’re in love anymore? How do we find depth of sleep? I remember when the warmth of home was just felt—when I walked into the house with the fire going and could put a pot of water on the stove and actually wait for it to heat—to sit and warm my hands luxuriously by the stove while the water heated. Nothing on my mind—think of that phrase: “things on my mind.” Like bricks weighing me down, distracting me from what else I might feel. I miss that warmth and that patience. It’s so hard to see and hear now, and it’s not just my age.
Like I said, not mere nostalgia. These are things I actually did and felt, and now that I have become unhinged, those moments are rarer and rarer. I went to see my old friend Betty Snow in New Hampshire the other day—her husband Gene had died last year. When I walked in I said, “there’s probably no vodka in a water bottle in the freezer anymore.” She looked right at me, and said “Yes, there is; I don’t drink the stuff.” Gene was still home in that water bottle in the freezer beside the woodstove in that cluttered and welcoming home in New Hampshire woods. When I lived in that little town, Betty and Gene would always have hot dogs and homemade beans on a Saturday night–no invitations needed, just show up with a beer or two and a smile, and eat. I can still expect the best homemade beans on any Saturday so long as Betty is still going. I’m well aware that nothing is permanent, but within our transitory experiences there are moments of stability that bring me home. I don’t know if younger folks will even know what I mean by all this.
There are possibilities looking out over this unhinged existence—things to appreciate, enjoy, and transform our lives with; I can’t see them all from my little corner of experience, but I know they are there if someone finds the simple wisdom to find them. But perhaps it would be useful in this world to find again—anew—some of those feelings that we’ve left behind; what a woodstove can deliver that a gas flame cannot. I realize that too comes with a cost—the cutting of the wood, the cleaning of the chimney and the ash. But perhaps the extra work is occasionally worth the home feeling—and oddly, perhaps, the homeness may be the condition of seeing those new possibilities. Being unhinged tints our vision—or at least it tints mine–there is a glare here in this airport, a constant glare. And if this woman at the counter doesn’t start being nice to people, I will be tempted to go kick her in the shin and tell her to wake up to the good fortune of her life here in this crazy cosmos—instead of being paid to stand in this warm airport, she might be hovelled on the streets of Boston at 4 am on this chilly morning. And not unhinged here in this glaring, blaring concrete cave. But then I think again—if she were hovelled out there, she would at least learn to feel again. I wish this world well in finding its possibilities amidst these frantic acts in which we engage; for me, it will be such a warm pleasure to see my dogs and cats this afternoon in another place and time.
For some incomprehensible reason, I decided to move to Texas for a few years. No regrets, I made great young music friends and learned how to jog slowly in 100 degrees plus. But I never felt at home there. And, yes, I know there are wonderful beauties around the state–they were just never my beauties. I leave them to the genuine Texans. The piece that follows was written when I noticed that–at least where I lived–I was missing the pervasive presence of trees. I am happy at present to be ensconced in a little place surrounded by hemlocks and gigantic old oaks.
Too Far from Trees
I have always noticed that I tend to get on better with non-human animals than with the human version. Of course, I have human friends who are very like my animal friends. But, on the whole, I have a tendency to create distances between myself and many of the humans I have liked or loved. This isn’t something I always actively try to do—I just seem to be particularly good at it. I get bonded and then find myself creating space. Often this happens because I’m afraid the other will be constrained or hurt by my presence—always makes me sad on such occasions. Sometimes I just lose track from being too busy doing meaningless things. But that’s not what I want to talk about here—here I want to say something about my distance from trees—especially white pines, hemlocks, and the majestic maples that blaze against the conifers every October.
I grew up with these trees. From earliest days, I heard the wind sighing through them; I have seen their branches catch and display the whitest of winter snows. I have sheltered under them. One white pine, still standing, was where I learned to contemplate and, of all things, to play harmonica. I suspect the little sandy hovel under the roots of that tree will outlast me and will be there for some new young person. I have walked through these pines for miles on September days when I decided not to go to work. Such peace and comfort in my aloneness as has been hard for me to find in any other way over these many years. These trees have showed me how to be tall and strong but gentle in my ways—how to suffer the world around me and to hold some part of me still and steady in the midst of turmoil. They have taught me to be happy across time—to bend with the wind, to carry others on my shoulders, to be quiet when all the rest of the world is loud.
I have become much too far from these trees and find myself longing to return as the days wind down. As I have steadily tread southward in recent decades, I have not only lost my deep friendship with trees, but I have found the absence of trees to grow more and more apparent. Texas is a tree-challenged place with the exception of a few areas (such as the Big Thicket!). I miss trees the way a New Yorker will miss water when in a barren place. At first, I hardly noticed it, but the farther I have grown from my trees, the more apparent it is to me how much they mean when I do see them again. Most folks will grant me my animal friendships but become a little perplexed with my deep attachment to trees—it’s perhaps a disease I share with John Muir and some few others. In losing their mentorship, I have found myself adrift in the world. I wake to find myself engaged in things that at the most basic level I think are silly, obnoxious, or just plain stupid. And those around me take these things seriously; these practices, after all, are the driving forces of their American existences. I get confused and unravel, and try to find a way to justify my existence engaged with such things. I find myself in need of the wisdom of trees.
I am too far from trees and I realize that now—I hope not too late. Even as I am hollowed out in my human relations from not knowing how to handle them, the presence of the pines and hemlocks brings me back to a kind of clarity. I am awakened to what I once knew so well—that these silly and pernicious engagements in my life can be happily left behind. I don’t need to spend days on utterly wasteful tasks—I can walk with those trees and listen to the wind in their tops, singing soft words to me that perhaps only I can hear. These are trees I would like to share with my closest ones—human or animal. But I never know who might hear them with me in the way my crazy little calico cat once did. But if I walk with them again, at least I can let those who choose on occasion to be close by have the chance to hear the trees sing in their quiet gentle yet immense way. I will no longer stay so far from trees.
Thanks again to Monster for the wonderful photographs!