Stephen Evans

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Stephen is a playwright and author of The Marriage of True Minds and A Transcendental Journey.

Fishing in the Sky

As part of my stay-at-home regimen, I have been rereading Walden. I have consulted it often, but not read it through for many years. When I first read it, I was as enthralled as any child of the Sixties could be, and thought it the American finest prose of the Nineteenth century. I was curious what my reaction would be now so many years later, and having been thoroughly influenced by Thoreau’s mentor Emerson.

The first chapter, Economy, I have to admit, was disappointing. The tone seemed to me preachy and self-satisfied, like someone shouting on a street corner, with only occasional bouts of elegance and depth. Also the math seems suspect , but since that’s not my strongpoint either I’ll pass over it.

The second chapter, Where I Lived an What I lived For, is all the Thoreau I remember. Let me share one passage:

 

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry,—determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.

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The Peaceful Place

I come here often.

About a quarter of a mile down the path behind my home, the trail curves and broadens into an asphalt circle. About 30 feet uphill from a tiny creek that wanders through the northern end of the park, the circle has three occupants: a woodenish bench, a large rock, and me.

20170909 171340

I say woodenish because it looks like wood but feels like some sort of composite material, much harder than wood and I suppose more durable. It is painted a wood brown color and is comfortable enough for the occasional visitor like me.

The rock is about 3 feet by four feet, and maybe 18 inches high of some dark stone, sedimentary I think because it is formed in thin layers, shale perhaps, though flecks here and there glitter like diamonds. Maryland is home to a black shale deposit known as the Marcellus shale, which grew up about 400 million years ago when the state was a shallow sea. The rock has secrets, I can tell, maybe fossils hidden inside, but it is not telling, not me anyway. 

It occurs to me that both rock and bench will be here long after me. They were here first, and so that seems fair.

The bench faces east and the sun warms my right check, while the breeze cools my left hand. There is little noise from cars, and only the occasional plane overhead. Surprising for a densely populated area, the ambient noise is mostly natural.  I close my eyes to listen.

There’s a wood dove behind me, a mockingbird up and to the right, a smaller sweet-voiced bird I can’t identify somewhere in front. In the distance the brazen call of the crows disrupts the serenity from time to time. The trees in their buds rustle quietly now – their voices will grow with their leaves. The loudest sound is the crackle of squirrels as they chase though the dried leaves, until the hammering of a sapsucker opens my eyes

I turn to locate him. The red headdress makes it easy. A tall slender tree has fallen across the creek, only to be caught partly upright by another tree on the opposite bank.  The sapsucker is traversing the fallen tree looking for soft spots. The business of life goes on.

I always think of my father here. We used to stop here on our walks in his last year; a great walker most of his life, it was as far as he could go, or maybe as far as I thought he could. But he didn’t mind stopping. I think it was peaceful for him too.

I have had other peaceful places. This is the closest. The others are far away in space or time or both.

Lake of the Isles was just down the block from our house in Minneapolis, and I absorbed its peace daily during the dissolution of my marriage. It was also gracious enough to inspire a story I have been writing for twenty years now.

Lake of the Isles 004

Some of the peaceful others I have only visited once. Mallory Dock in Key West – though you wouldn’t think to find peace in the middle of that circus atmosphere. It also inspired a story.

A pond in Pipestone Minnesota where wings of  dragonflies conducted a symphony I could not hear.

Lake Hiawatha at Pipestone

A spot outside Devil’s Tower, the quietest place I have ever been, where the deer and the antelope play.

Antelope at Devils Tower website


 Another south of Yellowstone where the white noise of waterfall enveloped me in solitude.

Waterfall in South Yellowstone 2

 

 Then there was Jackson Lake, mesmerizing with the Tetons immense and unmovable offering a glimpse into timelessness.

Jackson Lake 2 website

 

All these I have celebrated in books, and hope to celebrate in person once more in this life.

I can’t remember any I had as a child. Perhaps it was just my bedroom, where I hid away with my books. I was an inside child, asthma probably as formative in my growth as any factor. There was a tree in our backyard with a swing. Maybe that was one: I wrote a poem about it years later:

The tall oak by the swing set

in the corner of the yard,

by the chain link fence that marked

the beginning of beyond,

 is there still. 

I hadn’t realized before this how many of my peaceful places I have written about. They are important to me no doubt. I have a brain that is at best restless and at worst relentless. Imagining these places helps to calm me, to keep in check the unbounded notions I am prone to even now.

I hope everyone has their peaceful place. We need them so much in this anxious, fearful world

But if you don’t, feel free to borrow one of mine.

I’ll be the one smiling when you get there.

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
I find places, actual geographic locations, to offer the most powerful inspiration for my writing. Once experienced, they exist in... Read More
Sunday, 29 March 2020 03:38
Stephen Evans
Hopping the fence - great image Ken!
Sunday, 29 March 2020 14:57
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The Narrowing

Paradise Valley 2 resized

 The summoning of Courage is the most dangerous of spells. For you cannot summon Courage to do one thing. You must summon Courage to do all things.”

As I turn 65, I am increasingly aware of a Narrowing in my life, the sense that the parameters, the boundaries, have closed in, and will continue to do so. My life, which had been a pyramid, has become a pillar. I am the atlas alone atop the stone, bearing the weight of the decisions that have placed me here

It makes sense in a way. The narrowing may have started soon after the most notable widening of my life. In 1993, I moved to Minneapolis. My wife and I had started our marriage in Washington DC, which was home to me. But she hated the traffic and her job and possibly me. So we decided to move to Minneapolis, her home of many years. I had hoped the move might rescue the marriage, but it didn’t. It did open my eyes in other ways, though, as moving someplace new can do. And Minneapolis, despite or because of the grand disruption of my life and plans, Minneapolis with its lakes and arts and smiling people, opened my creative heart, and the city became a muse.

My mind, which had always been pretty open, waited for its own muse, and it was not long in coming. In 1997, after the marriage had ended in the mutual recognition that we had engaged in hopes unfounded in reality or personality, I took a solo car trip across country, a transcendental journey described elsewhere. This was I think the widest moment of my life, where any road seemed open to me, reaching its apex on a highway on the plains of South Dakota, as the limits of the world fell away, the road went on forever, and the moment was defined by freedom.

But as I discovered on that trip, in choosing one road, others are let go. In the year or two that followed, I chose two roads. I chose to be a writer, and I chose to take care of family.

I see now (though I did not completely at the time) that in making those choices I let others go. Marriage or any kind of romantic partnership was not included. Deep friendships in essence became infrequent companions in practice. No one asked me to make these choices. I made them, and I don’t question the choices now, because they seemed best to me then, and what good would it do anyway? Focus and necessity became my principles, though perhaps they were only a cover. Perhaps the Narrowing had already begun.

My choices came with a cost, and that cost has become the Narrowing. My life is circumscribed into smaller and smaller limits. A trip to the store or Starbucks is my adventure for the day. I dream of travel, but the effort and stress and uncertainty seem beyond my powers. I don’t drive at night, or on the highway, or to places I don’t know. I have lived in this apartment for nearly twenty years, not because I like it (though for the most part I do), but because the thought of uprooting my life at this age, and from within this solitude, is daunting.

I watched this Narrowing towards the end of my parents life. Once world travelers, wonderful friends, wide readers, their world became chair and bed, television and tray, doctor and hospital. I live in a retirement community and I see daily that my life is not the only one Narrowed. Many others around me have been, by grief, by isolation, by illness, by money, by age itself.

The Narrowing in my case is based less on capacity than on fear. I see this. But so far I have not been able to work past it. As an intelligent person, I feel that I should be able to. I should be able to solve this problem. And sometimes I feel that I am on the brink. I am not sure of what–a widening, reformation, a renaissance? So far the brink is as far as I have reached.

Yet other times, as I sit in my chair and listen to music or read or write, I have a vision I can only dimly apprehend, like the Xanadu of Coleridge (without the opium), a vague sense that the Narrowing is in its own way a transition to be embraced.

As the pyramid narrows into the pillar, the atlas atop climbs higher. The base is more unsteady, and toppling is a twist away. But the scene is expansive. We see farther, and further. Beyond ourselves. And when the clouds dissipate, the view will be transcendent.

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Writing from somewhere on my seventy-second trip around the sun, I recognize the narrowing but have experienced it a little differ... Read More
Thursday, 20 February 2020 22:45
Stephen Evans
I am hoping for a burst of energy and courage like yours Ken. As you say - waiting to be rescued is not an option!
Friday, 21 February 2020 00:36
Rosy Cole
When the way narrows, focus becomes sharper and dreams and distractions lose their power to seduce. Strangely, vision, empathy and... Read More
Saturday, 22 February 2020 17:02
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Man hopes. Genius creates. 

RWEmerson2 1The one thing in the world of value is the active soul,—the soul, free, sovereign, active. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they,—let us hold by this. They pin me down They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead. Man hopes. Genius creates. 

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American Scholar

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Have to admit that I'm glad RWE gave his successors permission not to be 'pinned down' by his often opaque and undisciplined prose... Read More
Tuesday, 18 February 2020 16:46
Stephen Evans
I was without a book at lunch, and keep a copy of collected Emerson in my car for just such occasions. I read this and it just str... Read More
Tuesday, 18 February 2020 23:09
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