Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

Standing Back And Letting The World And The Child Do Their Thing

Last summer, I met an old graduate school friend after several years. We chatted and exchanged notes about the intervening years and all the issues that had consumed us in that interim: finding an academic position, the dreaded tenure and promotion process, writing, and of course, bringing up children. Because I came to fatherhood late, we found ourselves talking about very different phases of parenting. At one stage in our conversation, while talking about her teenaged son, she remarked that she had been struck by how–after a certain age, perhaps as early as five or six, her son had, in a manner, grown up on his own with little ‘direct input’ from her; she had watched, in some amazement, as her awkward little boy, thanks to his own peculiar and particular interactions with the world around him, and consumed by his own curiosity and drive, had blossomed into a supremely interesting and ‘switched-on’ young man. She had brought him into this world, but he had built his own relationship with it, found his space within it and partaken of its many offerings, utilizing them in his life as needed, bringing to fruition his own interests and desires. (Forgive me, ‘J,’ if I’m not reproducing your observations with the appropriate fidelity.)

I listened with great interest. I realized that, as part of a thought related to some observations I offered here about parenting, I had often hoped for the world to ‘support’ my parenting; that, exhausted and anxious about whether I was ‘doing it right,’ I had worried that my partner and I were not going to be able to do this bringing-up thing by ourselves; we needed help. What ‘J’ had been experiencing and reporting on to me, was precisely that kind of ‘help.’ For the right place to look for aid with our parenting, for support in our efforts to ‘raise’ our child as best as we could, was at our child herself and the world she encountered: what she would do on her own, in the world she saw and experienced, with her own perspectives and orientations and interests. ‘J’s observations resonated with the kinds of statements I had heard other parents make: they were often amazed and surprised by what their children ‘brought home’ with them, by what they had learned on their own, and indeed, how they had broadened their parents’ horizons in so doing.

It’d be entirely dishonest of me to say I experienced anything other than relief at hearing ‘J’s remarks. Perhaps there was some hope in this parenting business after all; perhaps I didn’t need to be so intimidated and oppressed by the thought that I would transmit my dysfunctionalities and incompetences to my child; perhaps I needed to wait and watch as much as I needed to intervene and guide; perhaps, to let myself be guardedly optimistic as well consumed by my usual despondency, I should prepare myself for the pleasant surprises that await me as a result of the forthcoming interactions between my daughter and the world we’ve brought her into.

Colorado Notes – IV: The Outdoor Act That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Apparently bears shit in the woods.¹ What about hikers? Forget about ‘going’ in outer space. How do you ‘go’ in the great outdoors? The answer to this question scares many off from overnight camping, sending them back to the safety of the trailhead, the car, and then, onwards to modern civilization’s greatest achievement: the indoor toilet, complete with flushing system, toilet paper rolls, liquid soap dispensers, and towels. There’s no getting away from it: the call of nature must be answered, even if in the midst of, er, nature. Everyone poops; that fact does not go on vacation when you do.

And it ain’t straightforward, for the list of standards and guidelines to be followed are extensive, with conformance to them expected by all those you share the trail with: be discreet, sparing fellow campers a sight that cannot be unseen; stay away from water sources for those who transmit E coli to drinking sources are condemned to damnation; dig holes with a shovel for disposal of waste; do not use non-biodegradable wipes, otherwise, you need to pack it out (yes, pack it all out).  The physical requirements are equally onerous: deep squatting is a physical movement that makes many of us uncomfortable, but until Portosans start dotting the landscape–a fate too grim to comprehend–it is the only way to facilitate you-know-what. In ever so slightly buggy environments, some protective hand waving is required as well, up top and down below. (I cast my mind, ruefully, back to some New Zealand experiences involving sand flies; my rear end complained for several days afterwards.)

Morning rituals at camp are mostly uncomfortable and bothersome; stiff and sore bodies roll out of damp tents to pack up and get moving; the trip to the ‘outhouse’ is an important component therein. The dread that precedes it is, however, matched, if not surpassed by the almost euphoric sensation that follows its completion: body, mind, and step lightened, the hiker is ready to face the trail, its challenges suddenly less onerous. Cover on the trail is always harder to find; better to get things out of the way and set off with a clean slate (among other things.) Feel that skip in your step? You won’t if you don’t lighten up. Literally.

Despite my knowing tone above, I’m not an expert yet in the fine arts of outdoor pooping. And neither have I yet won mastery over the anxiety and angst that envelops the conception and execution of the act. My only consolation is the anticipation of that much-awaited–if stiff and painful to begin with–standing up and walking back to campsite with a huge grin on my face, now suddenly prepared to hoist those recalcitrant forty pounds or so on my back and get walking. With thoughts of next morning’s anticipated deeds held in abeyance.

Note #1: So I’m told. I’ve never seen one, nor have I ever come across any photographic or video evidence to this effect. Testimonial evidence and all that.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

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There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.