Yesterday, overall, was delightful.
I’ll admit that it feels a bit silly to insist that I’m living the dream when I slept in a Walmart parking lot and had Taco Bell for dinner. But I’m healthy, happy and vibrant. I feel alive and free. I feel full, whole, and powerful.
My legs are sore from lots of running and walking. Yesterday, after my morning writing session and two cups of coffee, I walked a portion of the skinny beach below the scenic overlook where Sputnik was parked. Lake Superior is huge. I walked a fair bit in both directions, but there was no end in sight. The beach had no end. The sky had no end. The road had no end. Sputnik was a dot on a plane that was also a series of lines extending in all directions, but especially east to west. Small coves jutted into the bluff and in many of these coves I found the remnants of campfires. I realized that each campfires was a story. Many stories, perhaps. I sat near one of these piles of ash, imagined how easy it would be to get it going right now. I imagined that the ghost of its original maker was right there with me. Who was this person? What were they running to or from? Who or what did they live for? And why?
It was a nice little meditaton. For a few moments, I forgot about my bug bites. By the position of the sun, which was making the water sparkle, I estimated that it was around nine o’clock in the morning. I could see Marquette, vaguely, in the distance, industrial buildings on the shoreline. I was one hundred percent certain that there would be a glamorous public library in this town, a college town, and I was one hundred percent correct - about the time and about the awesomeness of the library.
Per usual, the highway plunged me right into the action. Before I even had time to start thinking about getting my bearings, I was idling at a stop sign in front of a massive stone building, the library, a huge presence that looked like something that Roark might have designed. Bearings found. Parking was plentiful and the expression “I have arrived” crossed my mind.
Even better, the library didn’t open until ten. I love when this happens. It means FREE TIME! Of course, all of my time is free, but when pockets of further, deeper freedom and nothingness open up within larger spans of time, it really lights me up. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Freedom is a spectrum. It’s both a reality and a mindset. And it’s worth fighting for. Fighting hard. It’s true that sometimes in life it’s worth it to give up some freedom. But that should be done carefully. Intentionally.
Just for kicks, or for emphasis, I still walked up to the library door and yanked on it. “Not yet” said one of two women on a nearby bench, with a slight smile. That seemed like a strangely big truth – “Not yet” – something to think more about. So many things in life are “not yet.” And sometimes it’s hard to be comfortable with “not yet.” More and more, I’m learning to love it.
Thirty minutes was just the right amount of time to get a handle on the general layout of Marquette, and make a rough plan for the day. There was a marina worth exploring, full of salty (or, I guess, fresh-watery?) sailboat people. There was a bookstore. There were preparations happening for a community-wide piano-painting project, a white piano surrounded by paint cans and brushes. That could be fun, I thought. Two boys holding beach towels told me about the old ore dock, something that looks like it’s from the past and the future.
I returned to the library to work for a while, before going back to the marina and walking the exceptionally long jetty, several times the length of the one in Manistique. The rocks were bigger so it was a lot tougher, but more rewarding, to climb. At the very end, I climbed a ladder of bent rebar in cement up to a lighthouse that resembled a red-striped battery. For the millionth time, I thought: Lake Superior is huge.
Doing nothing is hot right now. Jenny Odell wrote a book about it. It pops up on Readup almost daily. The New York Times, in particular, can’t seem to stop spilling ink on the subject. I sometimes wonder if the rise of Trump has something to do with the resurgence of Thoreau. Regardless, it’s my forte. I love doing nothing. In a way, it’s the purpose of my life, to keep letting go more and more and more. Until now, I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with it, talking about it publicly. I fell for the widespread misconception that doing nothing is lazy. (Duly noted, once and for all: Just because it seems like everyone else thinks or does something doesn’t mean that it’s right or good. Groupthink is toxic, and it’s on the rise.) In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. To commit to prioritizing “nothingness” and “free time” requires grit, confidence, and perseverance. After I’m dead, I want people to say, “That guy really knew how to loaf.”
If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I’d spend a big chunk of today loafing.
Without fail, loafing always leads somewhere. Even when it doesn’t it does. Yesterday, it led me to the profound realization that I’m going to sail around the world. The thought lasted no more than ten or fifteen minutes, but it was crystal clear. Clear as a bell. It was as clear as my inability to come up with a non-cliche metaphor for clear.
As I watched a crew of novice sailors prepare to disembark, I thought of a young Steinbeck, playing around on sailboats with his friends, dreaming of a big voyage. And, of course, I thought of the extent to which this man’s non-fiction changed my life. Immediately after reading Sea of Cortez, I bought a sailboat and moved onto it. Six years later, immediately after I read Travels with Charley, I bought a camper and a truck and made that my home.
The realizations kept pouring in. Suddenly it dawned on me that soon I’m going to have a dog. It’s not even like I have a choice in the matter. I just know it’s going to happen. That thought really filled me up with oxygen. I can’t wait to have a canine companion! Then I heard the voice of that woman at the library: “Not yet.” Okay, okay. But still, I can’t wait!
Now that I’m such a hardcore doer-of-nothing, I have no clue how anybody else finds time to plan their life, organize their thoughts, get anything done. Perhaps that’s why people are moving so fast and getting nowhere. I don’t want to get too cynical, so I’ll stop there.
Although I didn’t know it, my wanderings did have a destination: The Marquette Symphony Orchestra MSO Summer Strings Concert. It ruled. They were just wrapping up the sound check when I arrived, so I grabbed a spot in the third row. I put a dollar in the donation bin and briefly wished I had more to offer. That thought lasted about four seconds. (The rest of my cash was spent at the nearby Farmer’s Market on red-leaf lettuce and a white oval sticker that says “UP” - Sputnik’s first bling!)
The concert was spectacular. A gift of the very best kind: freely given and from the heart. Deeply so. There were eight violins, three violas, three cellos, and a bass. All ages. All genders. All wearing all black – in the sun, god bless their souls. When I first looked at the program, I thought it was a bit corny to kick things off with the Star Spangled Banner, but when the first chords broke the silence I was in awe. It must have been a ten-part harmony, or even more - the best performance of the national anthem I’ve ever heard in my life. I stood, with the crowd, and took off my cap. I think I closed my eyes. My breathing definitely deepened. I was in the moment. I thought of the difference between alone and lonely. I was both of those things. I was neither of those things. I was at peace.
Special guests arrived to sing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof, songs I didn’t know that I knew. Again, my low expectations were profoundly shattered. They had voices like angels. For obvious reasons, lyrics like, “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,” and “If I were a rich man,” hit me pretty hard.
Carmen, by Bizet, flashed me back to Monday music class at the tiny elementary school I went to; playing the recorder, singing on risers in a room referred to as “the multi-purpose room,” which was, indeed, used for multiple purposes (gym, art, music, cafeteria).
Other highlights included Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D; The Red Iguana Rhumba; Scenes from the Emerald Isle, a powerful, almost cinematic Irish melody, and Rawhide, which I vaguely recognized as a jiingle, something with the lyrics “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’.” At certain intervals, the audience was asked to shout “Yeehaw!” and I did so with vigor. Needless to say, corniness was no longer a concern of mine.
The performance lasted about two hours and I savored every minute.
A few hours later, I streamed the Democratic presidental debate and it made me sick to my stomach. Literally. Writhing in pain, I thought about buying some Pepto Bismol. It also could have been the Taco Bell, but I’m fairly certain it was the debate that put my stomach in knots.
For one thing, I was annoyed at myself for breaking my very strict media diet. For two months, I have only gotten information in one of four ways: (1) AM/FM radio (2) local newspapers, purchased in small towns I pass through (3) Readup (4) books. It’s been sublime. But I couldn’t resist the urge to hear all of these candidates in their own voices. I wanted to know what they sound like, the textures in their facial expressions. I wanted them raw, unfiltered.
I was a few minutes late and the very first thing I saw was Tulsi Gabbard “answering” a poorly-asked question about equal pay for women with a canned speech about her military experience, 9/11, and the Middle East. I wondered if my live feed skipped. It hadn’t. I wondered if one of the moderators would say, “Tulsi, we just asked you about equal pay for women and you’re talking about foreign policy.” No such luck.
And so it went - for two painful hours. I’m still processing the whole thing, trying to figure out what we need to do about this, those of us who care about the future of the world. I have a broad perspective on this topic and I care a lot about it. Politics is broken. Discourse is broken. Our obsession with “positions” on “hot button issues” (guns, abortion, immigration, climate change) is so extreme that critical thinking and coherent communication is clearly dying much faster than I had initially realized.
We are a nation of Paul Reveres. Everyone wants to be the hero with the message. But what we need right now is Thomas Paine. We need Common Sense. The famous midnight ride and “The British are Coming” would have meant absolutely nothing if not for the fact that the colonists had all read, contemplated and debated Common Sense. It was read, out loud, in taverns and meeting places, so that even illiterate people were in the loop. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time, 2.5 million, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. It’s still one of the best selling titles in America.
This is what I think about all day every day. How to build collective reading back into the fabric of society, given that Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have robbed it from us. This problem, at this point, is CODE RED.
In a weird way, the dystopian horrorshow that was the Democratic presidential debates got me even more inspired to keep writing. To create the change I want to see, I need to be more coherent, more interesting, and more honest.
If you give me the gift of your attention, I’ll give you the gift of a reply. Readup makes this easy. I’ll reply to every single comment on this article.
Did I need to tell you about my day in order for you to understand my feelings about the debate? Maybe not. But part of me thinks it might have helped. What I know for sure is this: I watched the debate. Closely. And I took a chunk of time to share my most honest thoughts and feelings about it. Of course I don’t have the answers. That’s kind of the point. Our only chance to get some answers is to consider new ways to get thoughts, good ones, deep ones, from one brain to another, on the internet. Is that possible? You tell me.
I want to listen to the world the way I listened to that orchestra. The world needs reading. The world needs us. Let’s do this.