Black tarmac slips into view — tires impact — with jolt and bounce we arrive. I’ve left New York behind, and with it, family, friends, routines, familiar places – in a word, I’ve left behind my home. Traded it for a city with a herd of larger-than-life bronze bulls and a brassy sun. By the way, I like it here fine. For a two-week stay, anyway. The issue is, splitting my time between two places – not to mention other travel too – leaves me feeling spread a little thin. Like Bilbo Baggins, who told Gandalf, “‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” Then he briefed Gandalf on his plan: to leave his home in the Shire, to see the mountains one last time, to find a place to rest, and maybe finish writing his book.
The issue for me is that spending time in different places, no matter how much fun, makes it harder to sink roots. Harder to get to know a place. Harder to form connections with other people. Maybe that’s OK. According to American poet Gary Snyder, the word “homeless” is used to describe Buddhist monks, who leave behind the temptations/obligations of the secular world and become “at home in the whole universe.” Which sounds like a good thing.
After arriving in Dallas, my first destination the next morning is Andrew Brown Park, located in the prosperous suburban community of Coppell. Where the streets are lined with tasteful brick homes and crepe myrtle, cypress, and magnolia trees. I know this park pretty well, having gone running here on many a prior trip (45 separate times, in fact, according to my training log, in temperatures, incidentally, as cold as 32 F and as warm as 100 F). This evening I’m running through mist and intermittent sprinkle. The air is damp and warm. Remnants of a hurricane pushing across the Gulf of Mexico. I run at a slow jog, the soles of my feet surprisingly sensitive, whether I stick to the slick concrete or divert onto a close-mowed grassy field. I guess I scratched my feet in New York the week before, during a cold, wet run. So now for 7 miles I endure discomfort. And a disheartening slow pace. At one point, passing alongside a dark canal, I spot a blue heron standing on the embankment. It looks askance at me.
During daylight these birds line the shores of the ponds and interconnecting canals, attentive to the oily olive water and the critters that live therein. Sometimes when I’m running past, I pull up and freeze – then move forward again, in slow motion, one stealthfull step at a time – to see how close I can get. About 30 feet. They see me, even when they’re not looking my way.
So, to some extent I feel at home in Andrew Brown Park. Just like I do in New York’s Shawangunk Grasslands, where one time I encountered a heron sauntering on the path just a few yards ahead (I could tell it was watching me walking behind it, out of the corner of its eye). Another time the bird insisted on keeping a bend in the trail between us, and when I turned the corner it flapped off ponderously.
Gary Snyder writes in a philosophical tradition whose roots include not only Zen masters and Buddhists, but American Transcendentalists like Henry Thoreau, who shared a similar attitude towards homelessness. On a trip into the wilds of Maine, Thoreau hired a guide named Polis, a native Penobscot Indian. At the end of their trip, Thoreau asked Polis if he wasn’t glad to be home, but found “there was no relenting to his wildness,” for Polis said, “It makes no difference to me where I am.”
You can picture Thoreau nodding with approval. He wrote that the art of walking required a special attitude — “having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” And then he pushed the point even further:
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.
— Thoreau, “Walking”
Well, on this trip I’d left behind some New York friends (although hopefully not for good). The day before my flight, we’d gone hiking in a state park where the forests were overflowing with autumnal tints – orange-brown, red, and yellow – so warm and bright you could practically feel the foliage popping and crackling, while the glassy lakes flashed chromatic blue.
Now it’s small dainty blue-purple flashes that catch my eye — delicate blue petals growing out of furry purple sepals on the arching stems of some kind of ornamental sage. The bushes are billowing in a cold wind (the rain has passed), as I swing the gate on the white picket fence that surrounds my favorite coffee shop. Inside the gas fireplace is burning. The people behind the counter are smiling. In my experience, New York baristas tend to be a little on the cool side, a little distant, sometimes harried.
I place an order for a cappuccino. The young man behind the counter remembers my name from my last visit six weeks ago. I look around for a young woman with long blond hair, whom I’ve often chatted with when ordering. She told me her name once but now I can’t remember (later I recall it’s Carly).
Thoreau preferred to think of man as a “part and parcel of Nature” instead of being “a member of society.” Similarly, Snyder describes those Buddhist monks as having traded city life for a home in the mountains — indeed, they’d let Nature become their home. He quotes fifth-century poet Zhiang-yan who describes the proper hermit as someone who took “the purple heavens to be his hut, the encircling sea to be his pond, roaring with laughter in his nakedness, walking along singing with his hair hanging down.”
I got my introduction to Nature from my Grandpa Roy. I thought of him the other day, as I was standing next to a colleague in our office, both of us shouting into my aging cellphone (the speakerphone is hard to hear), and I suddenly caught the scent of after-shave. Which brought him to mind. Once, when I was very young, Roy took me on a walk into a grove of trees behind his house and by way of explanation said merely, “This is Nature.”
As an aside, Roy’s parents left the Old Country, where our people had lived for generations. They left their homes. For good. They left friends and family. And never saw them again. As it turned out, this was a good call. Roy’s parents traded pogroms and discrimination for freedom and opportunity. They avoided devastating war and famine.
I’m not currently faced with a decision of such high stakes. But I keep wrestling with the question — if I’m willing to give up home and go off in search of nature, where would I find it? In this regards, Snyder’s not much help. Because on the one hand, “Nature is not a place to visit – it is home.” But on the other hand, Nature comprises “the physical universe and all its properties” and thus “everything is natural.” Which means New York City is natural. And so are toxic wastes and atomic energy.
The best I can figure is that whatever nature is, starts with our bodies. And so the next morning I’m working out in the local Coppell gym (situated incidentally on the southern border of Andrew Brown Park). I’m doing squats. Working the glutes. Keeping spine neutral. Flexing knees with attention to form – otherwise a spark of pain flashes across left kneecap.
In New York I frequent a gym with similar equipment, not quite as new and nice as the Coppell facility. But New York is better for cold showers, which are part of my training regime. The chilly spray against chest and back – and those painful icy drips along the flanks – these force me to steel myself against sensation. When hiking in the mountains, cold air flowing across cheek, shoulder, bare chest – these sensations create a sense of urgency.
These physical activities teach me that the body is one and the same as the experience. So far as I can tell there is no separation between mind and body. The idea of separation is a relic of religious thinking, in my opinion.
Well, you say, let’s talk in modern terms. The mind is like software, while the body is the hardware.
But that analogy doesn’t quite work, because software is encoded in magnetic media or silicon switches – in other words, it has a hard physical existence, too.
So, what would correspond to a computer’s “mind”? The logic inherent in the software’s code? The answer to questions as displayed on the output screen? The movement of electrons within the circuitry? These answers don’t help. Whatever “mind” is, it’s ephemeral.
The next afternoon is sunny and warm. I leave work early. Stop by Andrew Brown Park for another run, which this time goes more fluidly. I return to my car as the vanished sun casts the sky in brassy tones, while a baseball field echoing with shouts glows lime-green. The next morning, as I’m driving toward my coffee shop, the southern sky turns the color of a tangerine.
The Snyder-Thoreau-Buddhist homeless logic is part of a long tradition in philosophical thought and inevitably the discussion leads to questions of ego and self-identity, which some liken to “homes” we build within our minds. During my life, I’ve toggled through a whole set of different identifies. But eventually the time comes to move along.
Bare-footer still works, for now. Notwithstanding soles that were scratched on a recent cold wet run in New York. It’s raining heavily when I arrive in Flower Mound, a few miles outside Coppell, but it clears up before the start of Ally’s Wish 5k race, and I hammer along the wet concrete roads at a reasonably brisk pace. Afterwards I see my colleague Bob, who’s come at my invitation (despite not having run a mile in many months). And here’s another colleague, Bryan — and what fun to see his two sons come flying across the finish. We meet a local runner named Ben, who somehow got lost on the well-marked course. Afterwards Bob and I grab a cup of coffee in an artsy espresso bar (me still in bare feet) and find that we have many experiences in common.
As every philosopher likes to remind us, we stand on a thin line between infinite past and boundless future. Like the flame traced by grassfire moving through a meadow, the line exists only at the margin. The spark leaps forward. From a spear of summer grass now crisp and black. To one still yellow but singed and smoking. In the instant of the leap is where we really live, as best I can tell.
The glance of a heron — the scent of after-shave — a question of colors.
Could home be found in a single step?
“My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time”
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”