My Son, Simon

On October 17, my son, Simon, was born. As he entered the world, his heart rate dropped. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. That first image of my son is burned into me: the stark whiteness of the cord set against his blueing skin, cinched tight to his neck, nested just beneath his ear. The whole universe revolved around that one point: the inch of tissue where life and suffering were one. I spoke softly, to myself and my wife, though I wasn’t sure it was true: “He’s okay. He’s okay.” Tears formed in my eyes. That’s all I could do as he came into the world. I could do nothing else.

That cord across Simon’s neck was his burden, unwillingly given to him. He was made to bear it though he did not ask for it. And I, his father and protector, stood by the wayside, frozen, pleading silently for the little boy. My heart rate rose as his dropped. My hands grasped as his were weak. I spoke when he was choked for a voice.

And I could not bring myself to look anywhere else but at my son and his suffering. 

And then the burden was taken from him: in several swift movements, the doctor took two clamps and secured them on that small span of tissue, the scissors slid up near his neck, closed down around the whiteness of the cord and severed it. And Simon was granted new life. He breathed, he cried. And today, he is a beautiful, healthy little boy. And I deeply and whole heartedly thank the doctor and nurses for that. We held him close, nestled him away with us, spoke to him, smiled at him. And he was ok. His burden was gone—lifted from him.

The day after Simon was born, I went to get coffee in the cafe downstairs. Through the windows, I saw a statue: a winged angel holding a small baby. I walked out of the doors and into the cool morning. The sky was a pale grey. New parents busied themselves latching baby seats into cars, smiling and laughing and worrying with pride. 

I turned from the lot and walked through the small prayer garden, tucked away around the corner: a garden devoted to lost children. Water trickled down a brickscaped half-wall. The wall was covered with small copper plates with the names of children who suffered and died. A litany of babies who bore immense suffering that was never taken from them. I felt the water and tears trickle behind those name-plates, animating the memories of children who were no longer here. Then I returned upstairs to my baby boy and my beautiful wife, trying to hide the redness of my face.

And as he slept in the bassinet, I understood what miracle my son has come through—what beauty I hold in my arms. His burden was lifted, and I could do nothing but stand in rapt awe that he was, is, here. I cried, I wondered and questioned and attempted to form meaning out of what has been given to me and my wife: the ambivalence of pain, suffering, happiness, life. 

And as I cried, I found myself wondering something else at the same time: What if the burden was never lifted? What if the suffering lasted forever? 

I think perhaps I found that answer in that garden. The answer, maybe, is the same: We cry, we stand in rapt awe, we wonder and question and attempt to form meaning out of what we are given.

Both life and death are worthy of our deepest passion, both worthy of our greatest reverence, both worthy of being remembered by we, the living.

For more on the Angel Garden at Virtua Voorhees, or to give, see here.

The Grace of Silence

A bit less than a month ago, I had surgery on my vocal cords to remove a polyp. Following surgery, I was on voice rest for a week: no speaking, no sounds were to come from my mouth for seven days. I abided by the rules as best I could. In all, I’d estimate only a dozen phrases passed my lips over those seven days. But for the most part, I held my silence.

A notepad and pen became my form of communication: cumbersome, delayed, lacking tone and inflection.

Phone calls became others’ monologues starting with, “I know you can’t talk, but I just wanted to…”

I went to a wedding. A woman asked me if I could eat normal food as I oddly struggled to bite into a piece of coconut friend shrimp. Half of it slipped out of my mouth and slid down my shirt. My wife answered for me: “Yes, it’s just his vocal cords. It’s not his food pipe.” I couldn’t even laugh at myself.

I started a new job. At orientation, my principal came by to discuss health paperwork that I needed to get in. I started to scribble on my notepad. Then another question came, and another. I put the notepad down and used my voice. The vibrations rung through my neck and into my jaws. Is this what it’s like to speak? I thought.

My wife carried my daughter downstairs on a Saturday morning at 6am. “Hat! You’re awa—!” and I cut off my last word, aware of my voice spilling noise into the world, but wanting it so badly to do so.

Though I did not achieve perfect silence, I felt something close. It was difficult, and at some points, it set me apart from those I love most: a visceral and brutal separation. But I also found a grace in the quiet eruption of silence into my life: it cooled my frustrations, slowed my perceptions, held a mirror to my thoughts.

So perhaps we are meant to be more silent than we are. Perhaps we should see silence not as nothing, but as the womb of something—the birthplace of everything. And if we do, perhaps we’ll stop stuffing it with filler, forcing it to bear the fruit of endless material consumption, constant stress, and meaningless suffering. Perhaps we’ll start investing that holy silence with something greater: creativity, awareness, contemplation, and above all else, love.

The Call of King Cole

My Grandmother and Mundane Miracles

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

I think we often miss the miracle in the story of the fishes. The miracle is not about catching fish. It does not matter whether fish were caught or not caught, whether there were 153 fish, fifteen fish, or no fish at all.

The miracle lies elsewhere: in the realization that the mundane is miracle. After the Resurrection, the Christ visits people, he sits with them, talks with them, and he eats with them. In short, he communes with the world, and is present to those who are willing to see him. The miracle of this story is not a surplus of fish, but the realization that seemingly banal acts, such as cooking breakfast and eating bread, are communion—not in a dogmatic sense, but in the sense that we share in, and commune with, all that makes up our experience of existence. Jesus, holding both life and death within him, returns to his disciples in order to show them that the common is divine: that bread and fish are cosmic flesh and wine is cosmic blood.

At the end of 2016, my grandmother got very sick. And we all fought so damn hard to keep her here with us: treatments, prayer, hope beyond hope.  But my grandmother, I believe, saw life with the eyes of one anointed by the understanding that the mundane is miracle. So while we fought, she accepted her death with awe and with love. And so a thin gossamer veil separating life from death rose up before her alone, and we watched her passage from a distance, through fog and fear, wishing that we could be there with her so that we could throw a lock upon the veil, just so that we could keep her here with us for one more day or month or year.

But we couldn’t, and we knew that, and it hurt to see her go. But though it still hurts, and I miss her dearly, I now know something else as well. By design or by chance I do not know, but the veil of gossamer that separates life from death moves sometimes: the Universe lifts it and sends it upon winds where it flits and lands upon mythical mountainsides where the living have never been, and here the veil spreads out and encircles the cosmos in a flowing ribbon whose border is imperceptible to the eye. And the living set their compasses to its location and seek it in their minds so that they can attempt to hold it in writing, in paints and pictures, or in philosophical thoughts. But just when we think we know where it is, what it is made of, or what lies beyond it, the Universe picks it up again, casts it to the winds that roll off our shoulders in the rush of our lives, and it falls upon some new mythical mountainside, and the search begins again.

An here is the miracle of our everyday lives: Sometimes, when the veil moves, we find ourselves in communion with the dead, on the other side of the veil, or perhaps it is the dead on our side. And when this happens, I know that my grandmother is not dead, just as truly as the disciples knew that the Christ was not dead. And though grandma does not appear to us on a shore to call us to eat fish and break bread, she is made manifest in other mundane miracles: She calls to us in certain footfalls that creak the floorboards of our houses and remind us of the home she created. She calls to us in certain words that come from the mouth of her daughter that remind us of her voice. And she calls to us at certain tables when we surround ourselves by laughter and loved ones and more food than we could possibly eat in one sitting.

So I do not believe in the miracle of the fishes. I have no reason to think it awesome or amazing that 153 fishes were pulled up in a single net. But I do believe in something else: I believe in the divinity of the mundane and the fluidity of life and death. I believe that the dead live eternally, not in Heaven, but here, with us, now.

Belated Thoughts on Gerry Largay

Gerry Largay, also known as Inchworm, was a 66 year old thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail in 2013: the same year that I completed my thru-hike. She disappeared from the trail in Maine during the month of July. At the time of her disappearance, I was much further south, somewhere in Virginia.

During my journaling and the subsequent writing of Adventures of a Trail Stooge, I never once mention Gerry Largay. Even today, I don’t precisely know why, though I will attempt to sort through the reason why below.

Some people have branded my story “immature,” and perhaps that is the reason why I did not mention Gerry: I did not have the capacity for compassion for another person because I was emotionally caught up in my own life. Or perhaps it is that I was simply too involved in my own basic needs of food, water, and shelter to think about those of another. Here too, the reason would be an inhibition of compassion and kindness on my part; an inability to sympathize with another thru-hiker.

But I don’t think that is the reason. I felt sadness and sorrow for her. I saw her picture hanging from flyers on trees. I saw her wide smile and that red jacket, and the blue bandana on her head. She looked just like any other hiker I might meet on the trail and talk about food and water with, and ask them how their day was going, and feel confident that they would make it to Katahdin because they’ve made it so damn far already. In that picture that was posted all over the trail, she looked like she was supposed to. She looked content and happy and a part of the AT community. So maybe I didn’t write about her because I was confident that she would be found; or maybe I was just hoping against hope that she would be, and to write about it would break the tension that lay over her disappearance. In a way, writing about her would be an acceptance of tragedy, and perhaps I did not want to do that. I wanted Gerry Largay to wind up on Katahdin. I wanted her to have an epic adventure that she could go home and tell her family about, and laugh about, and cry about, and show them pictures of, and tell them about all the trail angels and hikers and silly mistakes that she made, like a wrong turn when she got off the trail. I wanted that mistake to be something to laugh about, and I still held out hope that it would be something to laugh about, that she would summit Katahdin in due time.

But I don’t think that is the reason either.  I talked to other thru-hikers about her. We said how sad it was that she was missing, and that we hope that they find her soon. And those ideas were heartfelt, yet they had the pang of morbid resignation: I knew that it was highly unlikely she would be found alive. I had already admitted to myself, whether I wrote it down or not, that she was likely dead. Three months after she went missing, as I walked through the woods of Maine, I knew that somewhere in the wilderness was Gerry Largay’s corpse. I had imagined that she had fallen down a hillside far from the trail, or had gotten injured in some way and wandered deep into the forest, and that her body was inaccessible with the cold winter moving in. But I was wrong: she was no more than a mile off the trail, having left the AT to relieve herself and gotten confused. And that’s where she died, rolled up in her sleeping bag and her tent, less than a mile from where I walked at some point in the woods of Maine.

So what is the reason I failed to write about Inchworm? In the end, I suppose I simply do not know. But I do think this: I think the AT elevated my perspective on existence. It insulated my emotions and feelings from the sad and brutal things that we see and hear about every day of our lives. The AT allowed me to slow down the fire of my soul, accept what is brutal and terrible, and engage with existence in all its myriad forms, without wanting to burn the entire world apart, without wanting to damn it all to Hell.

Perhaps this is why I did not feel the need to write about the death of Gerry Largay–perhaps I had accepted it the moment I saw that flyer nailed to a tree. Life and death live side by side on the trail: what is alive is only alive because what is dead is now dead. All life falters and is consumed by the void to begin the cycle again. Life and death are not opposites, they are part of a single unity. This is not metaphysical; as a hiker, you see it in the woods at every turn, it surrounds you with every step. It is always there: rotting trees lie against the living, forcing them to bear a lifeless burden; beetles crawl upon the corpse of a baby deer and larva are planted within its flesh; squirrels and birds and all beasts hunt and are hunted and die and are eaten; the fallen foliage under our feet is decayed and turned to soil by the worms and bacteria along with flesh and feces.

So perhaps I just accepted it. But even so, I am ashamed of myself for not sharing Gerry Largay’s story earlier. I am ashamed that I did not write about her on my blog or in my book. I am ashamed that I did not take the time, until now, to sort through the swirl of ideas that her death on the AT brings up in me. So this is my attempt to rectify that, and in doing so, I do not mean to belittle Gerry Largay’s death, or the death of any individual. But I hope we can find both the beauty and the misery in all tragedy. Because they are both a part of the horribly beautiful dance of death that Inchworm was a part of—that we are all a part of—the thing that we call Life.

For more information on Gerry, here is a link to an article on her disappearance.

To Do What We Want

“It is just so beautifully wild out there. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine vast tracts of land that have been minimally touched by the push of human progress – but they are there, and they are amazing. It is a powerful view to look out over forest and hills and not see roads cutting scars across the land. It’s powerful to know that this is what the world really is – it is not cars and buildings and schedules and presentations. The real world is something far more awe inspiring and spiritually massive than anything we can imagine sitting inside a home or an office. There is a feeling of stewardship that arises when you look out over the wilds. Because although we can do what we want with the land–we can lay roads, cut trees, mine ore, and build towns–it is not ours to do as we wish with. And we can feel that in some moments, when we see ourselves as peaceful individuals on a hillside, that we are integral with the rest of the world.”

I wrote those words in a blog entry during my time on the trail. I’ve said it many times–I often struggle to maintain the mindset that I had while on the trail. Words do not fully express the subtleties that go along with thoughts that carry so much weight–thoughts that seem to defile the idea of human progress, or to damn technological pursuit. I think in writing the above words, I failed to see a deeper meaning.

Perhaps value does not lie in the tangible outcome: it does not matter whether we have untarnished wooded plots or complex machine cities. It does not matter whether we have untainted rocky mountains or burnished city skylines. All objects are merely benign matter in the end, and matter itself is not inherently moral or immoral.

And perhaps value does not lie in the processes of our lives: it does not matter whether we destroy, create, preserve, modify. None is inherently better than the rest; they are all necessary modes of interaction with the World. One must be willing to destroy in order to create. One must be willing to modify in order to preserve. They are all just interactions with and between matter, and as such, are not inherently moral or immoral processes.

So perhaps the value lies somewhere else, somewhere beyond matter. Perhaps it lies in our minds–in the motivations and intentions that drive us to influence and alter the World. What is the spirit behind the matter? Do we seek to integrate ourselves with the World, or do we seek to dis-integrate ourselves from it, and it from ourselves?

In writing the above entry, I failed to see that we can do what we want with the land. But we also need to remember that the land, like ourselves, is only a small manifestation of the infinite and eternal cosmos–it is a Mask of God, but without human features: brains and fingers, nerves and culture. It is a Mask made of bark and leaf, soil and rot, mushroom and maggot. It is made of rock and moss, skull and gnat, stinging bee and soothing stream, rising fog and burning sun. The myriad entities of the world arise as something non-human and therefore different from our conception of interaction and communication. But simply because something is non-human does not mean that it is non-communicative. All things have a mind–every single thing is a Mask of God, and therefore, are endowed with a reason for being. Each rock, each root, each grain of sand cries out, “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.” But I also hear the roadways cry this out too, and the buildings, and the machines and the technology that we create and destroy, modify and preserve: “The fact that I exist leads me to believe that I am worthy of existence.”

Thomas Berry wrote that “Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe.” Just because we can not hear that declaration in human syllables does not mean it is not declared. So our declarations as human beings–our choices to destroy, create, preserve, or modify–must be integrated with the declarations of the matter and minds that surround us, regardless of whether they take up form in the natural world, or in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying brave new World that we have created for ourselves.

Thoughts on Adventures of a Trail Stooge

I wanted to share with everyone…
Just share a little bit about the way I wrote and thought about the compilation of Adventures of a Trail Stooge. The Mt Laurel Sun covered some of this in their excellent article that came out last week. You can find that here. But I wanted to lay it out in a little more detail in the hopes that it would better explain some of the thoughts and ideas that have come to be very important in my life. I wanted to pull back the curtain on the writing process and grant some insight into what the book attempts to do on a literary and philosophical level.

Of course, as with all things, these ideas need not be your own. They are mine, so I’ll split open my mind to you for a time in the hopes I can convey something worthwhile. But do not take them all—for you are your own-minded individual! Only take what you deem worthy of thought. Synthesize those ideas within your own mindframes as you see fit.

What is this story about?
The Appalachian Trail is the vessel that holds the stories of every thru-hiker. And each year, more hikers pour their stories into it, hopefully for the better. Adventures of a Trail Stooge is not about the vessel, it’s about the drop of experience that I call my own.

I have said this many times, and I will say it again: my journey was not about the Appalachian Trail. My journey was about a young man who needed to find himself, and in turn, find the courage to be himself. It is about meeting great people and learning how to live and love. The AT is an amazing place, but it is not the primary focus of this story. If I did not choose the AT, I would have chosen somewhere else. And if I did not do it in 2013, I would have done it sometime else.

This is not a travelogue or a guide on how to hike the AT. It does not involve advice on what towns to visit, or what gear to pack, or what shelters or sites to see. I felt those things unnecessary. The AT is a place that becomes your own when you walk it. What it is bleeds into you, and what you are bleeds into it. My thru-hike was unique, as all are. The relationships I formed and the thoughts I had, and which no individual can replicate, are the spirit of this story. I implore readers to look beyond the setting and to seek meaning in that spirit. This is a story about simplifying, struggling, making friends, and ultimately about finding comfort in one’s own life and mind.

What’s up with the bizarre format?
I chose a strange way to convey this story for a reason, although it may have been a reason that lived at the back of my mind until only recently. Many other trail memoirs are more traditional in their structure. Those hiker-authors will source their narrative from their journal entries, massaging them into a polished product, dramatizing some aspects, downplaying others, and leaving out inanities. That is one way to do it, and I don’t think it’s a bad way at all. I’ve read some good trail memoirs that do just that. But for me, that is not what I wanted to convey. I did not want to put makeup on my journal entries.

My trail experience was personal and present. Each moment, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, was a moment that I was a part of. The natural tone, the raw journal entry, is what I wanted to convey. My greatest and most accurate relic of my trail experience is my journal. To mask the entries with flowery prose and a semi-fictitious facade would be a misrepresentation of what I went through. Admittedly, many of my journal entries are pretty poorly written. I write conversationally, using jargon and vocabulary that can be described as immature. I use forms of punctuation that are non-traditional. It is not lyrical prose. It is not perfect, nor was it ever intended to be.

With that said, I needed a perspective that tied together the journal entries into a coherent narrative. That is why I chose to include post-trail notes after each entry. This is the perspective that allows me to fill in the gaps, invigorate events that my tired mind could not record with an artist’s pen, and provide commentary on the thoughts that were going on within me.

I again implore each reader to seek something deeper within this format. Reading deeply and consciously is a challenge, I know. But when we push ourselves to the brink, when we meditate and think, we can see something that lies beneath the words and the format, beneath the setting, beneath the physical world. The journal entries are there to convey something raw and unmasked. I wrote them on my back in a sleeping bag with a headlamp on. I wrote them after a day of hiking in which my mind either raced with thoughts of the universe, or lay idle in a fog of fatigue. It is difficult to picture the AT, I know. Perhaps I could have done a better job filling in those blanks with descriptors and imagery. But I wanted the reader to struggle a bit with this. I wanted them to focus not too much on the place, but on the feeling and the spirit that underlies that place—I wanted you to put yourself not in my shoes, but in my mind. To alter my journal entries would be unfair to the experience. Those entries are the most perfect representation of my imperfect experience. They hold my struggles, boredoms, and inanities—but they are part of the totality of my trip—they are mine.

Oh man, this is going to get weird…
During my thru-hike, I came to embrace the idea of paradox not as a problem to be overcome, but as truth in its highest form. I found, at times, that I was capable of understanding myself innately as both an individual and a unity. This feeling was the subject of my blog post Alone. Over time, I learned to embrace paradox wherever I found it. I stepped back from reason, and I started to trust my spirit, or my intuition, or God, or Oneness, or whatever word you may use there.

The understanding of paradox was one of the reasons I think I subconsciously chose to include the raw journal entries in my book. Through the entries, I tried to show that what is mundane is also paradoxically transcendent. What is inane is also paradoxically sublime. As I say in the forward, I never had any blinding revelation, never had any transcendent glimpse of fiery wisdom. But what I did have was small moments in which the trail became something else, something higher and holy. And then it became the trail again, but without losing its sublimity, without becoming something less. The format is also a kind of paradox in itself—two perspectives (one on the trail, one after the trail) that are actually a single perspective.

Likewise, I began to see paradoxically on a grander scale. I came to understand myself as a small part of a universal expression: an individual consciousness alienated from all other consciouses, yet endowed with the miracle of existence, thought, and empathy. I saw myself as a manifestation of a greater consciousness. I came to see myself as a material Something—flesh and blood held together by mind—arising from nothing—a beautiful and pervasive void—an unknowable Nothingness. I began to feel as though I operated both within time and outside of it: a temporal and eternal being. Yet I did not feel contradictory. In fact, I felt most complete in those times.

There is also the nebulous idea of perspective and re-perspective—that one and all are both an experiencer and an experience. Where is the line between others and myself? Where is the line between a perspective on a cosmic scale and our perspective as human beings? Where is the line between my trail perspective and my post-trail perspective? What we perceive perceives us back, not only in the form of other individuals, but in the form of the totality of existence.

And then there is my name: The Esteemed Stooge Sir Charles Guilons, a playful paradox. How can I be a noble stooge? A fool with wisdom? Esteemed in my stooginess? How can an immature kid figure anything out? I don’t know. But maybe, just maybe I found a loophole in the way the world works.

All of these things are paradoxes—two contradictory concepts that are somehow held to be of one truth. A schism is opened in the mind, yet it is spanned by imagination and love. What if? Again, I implore the reader to look beyond the material world, beyond the words on the page and the inanity of the physical events. Instead, wrap yourself in a cosmic cloak and try to see the world from a different perspective: one that embraces unity despite the perception of plurality.

There’s no point in Nothingness, you stooge…
I have a friend who asked me about how I can believe in the thing I call Nothingness. He said it’s depressing—believing in nothing. But it is not just the Nothingness that I embrace. It is the Something as well. It is a mind-splitting act, schizophrenic in a sense, to see the world paradoxically as both a something and a nothing.  To do so requires both a divesting of all we know and an investing with something we don’t know.

Without both sides of the paradox—if all I believed in is the Nothingness, I would be a void myself, a pointless Nihilist who sees no connection between my material body and the material of the rest of existence. I could destroy without ramification, live without expression, imagination, or love. I could.

But, as the Buddha said (I just read a book that had this quote in it; it’s a great quote): “It is worse if you get caught in the non-self of a flower than if you believe in the self of a flower.” If we worship only the Nothingness, we forfeit the opportunity to be a part of the great gift that is the only experiential aspect of the Nothingness. I am not a Nihilist. I am far from one. Every moment, whether it be blessed by bliss or searing pain, is sacred. I am not perfect at always remembering that. I often fail. But I try.

A connection to life…
Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply. Maybe this story is just about some immature kid walking through the woods, writing bad entries, drinking and eating in town, being boring. At one point in my life, I would have agreed. Thinking this way reminds me of how I felt when I read a bunch of children’s stories about a year ago: Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit. And at first, I thought, “Why can’t these stories just be about a wooden boy, or a strange flying boy fighting pirates, or a bad little rabbit?” I thought the stories were simple—I thought they were self-contained. But then I started to invest myself in them. In time, I saw something more: a connection to life itself.

Awareness of life demands deeper understanding. We may fail in the attempt at that understanding oftentimes, but at least we can try. So I want to thank you for trying. I want to thank you for reading this story.

These ideas may seem lofty, but that is the beauty of our ability to imagine. As you read this book, invest yourself and claim my journey as your own—as a reader, you will write this story just as much, if not more than I. Do not think that this story is self-contained. No story is. So take what you want from my words above. Synthesize what information you will. Once you take the time to read of my journey, it becomes your own. I just hope that in making it your own, you make it something good.

Become What You Are

I did not look up. I kept my eyes cast down, not wanting it to end. I stepped  mechanically, my mind no longer worked to keep my feet moving. It was simple to walk — one foot found its place amongst the rock, then the other. Five months prior, I began a two thousand mile hike that would change my life. The end now stood in sight, the final stretch of trail running out before me over the massive tabletop of Mount Katahdin.

I thought of what it meant to be who I am. I thought of what I had learned over the past months, and about what it means to be alive in the universe. All these thoughts whirled through my head as I took my final steps toward the signboard, one foot finding its place amongst the rock, then the other. I breathed in, closed my eyes, and extended my hand. I reached out and touched the weathered wood scripted in pale white paint — “Mount Katahdin, northern terminus of the AT.” My journey was over. There was nothing left to do but descend the massive upheaval of earth and begin the next part of my life.

Before my trip, I was always focused on “becoming” something. I always wanted to get a new title, make more money, and have more responsibility. I pursued my future at the expense of the present. But during my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I discovered that life isn’t about “becoming” anything — it’s about being what you are.

Knowledge is perhaps the most valuable thing we collect in our lives. Knowledge breeds curiosity and the urge to discover and create. New ideas shape the way we interact with the world. They create new frames of reference through which we organize the immense amount of data we receive every day. And through this attainment of knowledge, something amazing happens: we begin to create on our own.

I know of no higher calling than to learn and create. That is my goal in life. I do not care for the title of writer or teacher — they are only tags connected to me. I care for the will that is inside of me to gather and understand, and then create that which is not yet created. The work may be an essay, a work of fiction, or a blog post. Or perhaps it is the unfolding mind of a child who finally realizes the power of a word they have just come to understand. That creation is wholly new, never before seen in the universe — and it is something awesome.

When I walked off of Mount Katahdin, I took with me a new point of reference from which I viewed the world as a whole. I saw myself not as a person struggling through life on the Earth, seeking to reach some fulfilling endpoint. I saw myself as a manifestation of the universe itself, with the capability and potential to learn, create, live, and love. At the time, I did not know specifically what I wanted to do — all I knew was that I wanted to do something worthy of me.

I set out on a new path in life. No longer would I search for something to “become.” I would relish that which I already am. I would collect knowledge and create new things. The knowledge I seek is all around me. It is in books, nature, people, and understanding. There is so much of it that I will never be able to grasp it all, but I will try. And with the knowledge I do attain, I will create. My creations will become new pieces of knowledge, perfectly manifested pieces of myself, ready to be absorbed  by those who seek it.

I seek to attain the titles of writer and teacher. But those are not who I am. During my time on earth, I will further who I already know myself to be — a collector of knowledge, a spirit of creation, and a manifestation of the universe itself.

To Tend a Garden

Last year, we planted a garden. My father, brother, and I cut the three rectangular boxes. We stained and sealed the squared wood and sat the straight lines into trenches. The boxes hugged the earth’s short slope, the first boxed tier dropping to the second, and the second down to the third. In the bottom box, we dug out the roots of an old tree that stood there years ago, removing the dirt covered memory of the scarred trunk and gnarled branches. We moved the earth with our hands and had visions of a garden that would take shape upon that small plot of our yard.

I never saw the seeds break through the dirt and into the sky. I did not see the fruits of our labor harvested and eaten. I left for the trail soon after we planted. But I knew they were growing because the frames were well laid, the earth was good, and the seeds were strong. I could imagine the growing vines, the reaching greenery, and the broadening leaves.

This year, I will plant it and watch it grow. Already, I pulled the scattered weeds from the soft soil and prepared the wood frames for another year of weather. I retrieved the compost bin out of the shelter of the garage and nestled it into its corner of the yard, the musky casting ready to sustain the living plants. My hands worked at the straggly weeds, pulling them free from the ground. The earth clung to my sweaty legs and the sun burned against my white flesh.

I am happy to be home this summer, and not just for the garden. Because like the garden, I will tend to those I love. I will weed out the problems as they arise and enjoy the fruits as they come forth. I will enjoy my moments with all of creation — whether that be garden, friend, or the thing that we can’t quite describe — the thing that makes up all of what there was, is, and ever will be.

Because as the wise  one, Joe Dirt says, “Life’s a garden, dig it!”

“But what cruel thing is war…”

But what cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.

– General Stonewall Jackson, in a letter to his wife Mary Anna, on December 25, 1862

I like to think that Stonewall spoke not only of martial warfare, but of all things destructive and cruel in our world. He spoke of hatred both acted upon, and thought upon. He spoke of devastating the fair face of the world in open war and in quiet exploitation, in deed and in demeanor. He spoke of hatred of neighbor — both man, beast, and wild.

Men like Stonewall did things they wish they had never done. They destroyed that which was meant to live. But take heart, because he shows that there are men who have committed such acts, but did not carry them out in vain. The warning echoes against the walls of the future: we must follow the pleas of empathy and enlightenment, but  be cognizant of the errors of destruction and ignorance.

This place was not made for us to destroy, scar, and devastate. It was not made to breed hatred, anger, and death. In this place, we are meant to live eternally, as one cosmic being, forever in a dance with itself.

Image courtesy Library of Congress. “Antietam, Maryland. A lone grave.”