The essential nature of things is to accumulate, both physically and virtually – the virtual world promises a counterfeit wider world –touch a key and ‘see’ anything, anywhere, and the physical world sometimes seems plunged so deeply into random piles and displays of unused possessions – furniture, papers, electronic gadgets — that one achieves a state of wonder as to how much could be gathered by a few people, as if there were a secret competition to alter the rules of arithmetic so that one could only ever add, and the idea of subtraction itself had been ‘disappeared’ from the mathematical realm. Inertia is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. ‘Too much’ is the enemy.
More things and more ‘virtual time’ equals more distractions from the human beings who can surprise us and from a sharp-edged discernment of what is moving around out there in the world of physical creation.
When I spent days and weeks at a time back-packing, the simplicity of carrying everything I needed combined with the daily gift of muscular use and progress forged a sharper awareness of the life I actually felt, that we all can feel. The pull of back muscles, the stretching out of the legs, the heady sense of “lighting out for the territories,” the pleasure of the tiredness that sets in after walking miles and miles, the conscious choice of carrying only what I needed and one or two small indulgences (a book, a little wine) – I want to bring that sense of existence back, not as nostalgia or a pointless yearning for a youth that will never return, but as a modified way to live the years that are left (if there are years left).
Long term clear sight lines into unfamiliar “territories” and the best routes for our effort can so easily be obscured by things and by our desire for more and newer things so that change itself becomes a trap instead of an emancipation. We court ‘change’ with a new web-site, a new phone, a new couch and carpet and an authentic version of life, one that involves a synthesis of curiosity, physical exertion and challenge, becomes subsumed into anything bogus and unreal. Too often now I have this impression that this predatory complacency is what I can feel circling me, as if stalking me, taking its time, savoring the slow chase because it knows that my own sluggishness and contentment will make me easier to bring down if only it is patient.
It is out there, close enough all the time really, padding by my side, but especially now when increasing age has shredded my belief in my personal immortality.
Distractions take us away from the marrow of life; age has the potential to increase those intrusions. We gradually lose the energy to keep up with the entire list, the implacable daily roll-call of chores, mail, bills, home and car maintenance, doctor’s appointments, shopping and cooking. That long list eats more time as we grow older, and as we collect more stuff. Time devoted to the care of things becomes time lost to making discoveries, time lost to surprise and to the nurturing of a sense of wonder, time lost to conversations and reading and music, time lost to hours with nature and animals, time lost to making something with our willing hands.
Thoreau is the American patron of this desire to live in some way faithful to intensity, to making all the moments count. Earlier in Chapter 2 of Walden (several paragraphs before the sentence written on the sign) Thoreau writes,”The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth everywhere.” And a few paragraphs later he adds,”We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”
Awaken to the uninterrupted creation of the world, he says. Stay alert to beauty and awe. Be present in the world. We will not be forsaken he says, if we will only stay hopeful “of the dawn,” and this from a man who could see our Civil War coming, who sensed that blood would be spilled within his own country. If he could be an optimist about living a purposeful life in 1856, we can be so now. But we, no, no we, I must choose and add by subtraction. There is much to do, and for this I should always be thankful.