Prospect Mountain looks out over Williamstown, Massachusetts, the so-called Purple Valley of Williams College. Thoreau famously remarked of this view that “It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain . . . Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.”
Near the summit of Prospect, there is a clear outlook from a rock outcrop. At various times in my life, I have had recourse to that perspective to orient myself — spatially, temporally, spiritually. As important as the scene from the top –the expansive landscape of wooded hills and rolling fields — was the ascent itself, a test of mettle to earn the comprehensive view, the pastoral panorama. As Thoreau said of the nearby trail he took up “Saddle-back Mountain” (now Mount Greylock) in “Tuesday” of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “It seemed a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.”
Three decades ago I composed an essay atop Mount Prospect, and here I will pair it with a more recent retrospect. To retain the older essay’s documentary witness, its authentic testimony, I will not revise beyond simple corrections of spelling or syntax. But I will offer a bit of context to start, and interpolate in brackets occasional amplifications. Then I will append two more recent journal entries.
I first set foot in the Purple Valley a full forty years ago, a Williams freshman living in Lehman West, where I met Tom Krens, who will figure repeatedly in this story, the only Eph friend I ever made, aside from professors and librarians. I left Williamstown and sort of slammed the door behind me when I dropped out of Williams in the middle of my sophomore year, but a year and a half later, having explored alternatives and changed my living situation by getting married, I escaped the horrid public realities of 1968 and returned to these chosen hills — chosen for me if not by me. The first time I went back to the college library, I met Tom coming out of the reserve room and he exclaimed, “Great, now I will have someone to talk to again.”
Jane found a job at Pownal Elementary School, and we lived for two years in a trailer park next to the Green Mountain Racetrack, just over the border in Vermont. After Jon and Laurie, our respective and mutual friends going back to grammar school, got married in 1970, we moved in all together to the “Dalmation Plantation,” the Williamstown house of a math professor on sabbatical. We were part of the era’s search for communal satisfactions, small droplets in a cultural wave, though in fact we were a timid and prudish band of hippies.
That arrangement lasted only for a single school year, though Jon and I continued to work together at the college library, and Laurie and Jane shared an open classroom in Pownal. For a year Jane and I lived over the mountain in Berlin, NY, and made a daily tri-state commute, but then Tom — who had returned to Williams as a studio art instructor and moved into Fort Hoosac, the unheatable old fraternity house he would buy at a fire sale price during the first great oil crisis, and over the years transform into his rural palace — put us in touch with an economics professor going on leave, and we moved into a house in the middle of the campus, just three doors up Hoxsey Street from where Jon and Laurie were living.
The subsequent two years saw cross-currents of stress amongst the four of us, which led the two couples finally to go in separate directions, to Boston and New York. For me, the need to escape the all-too-comfortable seclusion of this valley was determined by the deaths of my father and my mentor within a short span. My father’s death from colon cancer at 52 instilled a sense of urgency, and the suicide of Charles Samuels at 38, the English and film professor I was closest to and most wanted to emulate (he and his wife Nada had been over to our house for dinner less than two weeks before he killed himself), counseled immediate escape from the academic environment. It was Tom who insisted that I had to go to New York, and so I did, with great trepidation.
I’d had a comfortable situation in the college library, sort of a protégé to the head librarian and very close friends with the acquisitions librarian, under whom I first worked full-time after college. Mrs. Isabella Welsch, whom I referred to with familiarity as IsW, as she signed her office notes, was a very smart widow about the age I am now. Our intimacy began in the hush of the library, but continued for a stormy decade. At some point in her own re-creation, she came to terms with her mother’s memory and started to go by her inherited moniker, Bella. In the summer of 1975, she and Jane and I (and our dog Emma) took a trans-continental journey in a VW camper, from Boston to Vancouver to Long Beach to New Orleans and back, visiting with our respective friends along the way.
In New York, Jane once again had no trouble finding a job, this time at Brooklyn Friends School. I worked there for a year myself, in the library and in audio-visual, but mostly the three years in NYC were what I did instead of graduate school, exploring the city and its film venues in particular. At BFS, we met Christine, a Quaker woman between years with the American Friends Service Committee and the multiracial, progressive evangelical Voice of Calvary ministry in Mississippi. We bonded over a shared attraction to Black culture and dreams of being a writer, and our relationship blossomed from there.
It’s clear in retrospect that the three years Jane and I spent in New York were at the nadir of the city’s fortunes — on the brink of bankruptcy, subject to crippling transit and garbage strikes, the era of famous headlines like “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” It was too much for me, at any rate, though invaluable as a stage in my development. After all, even Thoreau had his season in New York. But in 1977 I was determined to escape, still hoping for a career in video and film but recognizing I didn’t have what it would take to make it in the big city.
In that twelve thousand mile circuit of the country, the summer after our first year in the city (while Tom used our Brooklyn Heights apartment as his pied-a-terre), I never came across a place more attractive to me as a homestead than the Berkshires of Massachusetts, nor was there a place where I had more connections. Christine was back in Mississippi, where she had connections with the VOC that might provide work for a video collaborative. Though I couldn’t have tolerated the swelter of the deep South any more than the pressure of the big city, the appeal of joining the civil rights movement in its latter stages was strong, so for a while my choice of direction was poised between MA and MS.
This story picks up a year after the choice had been made, and details the steps by which it came to pass. Tom was still teaching studio art at the college, and coming out of a winter study project he and a group of students had formed a company, Alliance Editions, to produce silk-screened t-shirts and totebags with art themes. After some initial success, they attracted the interest of someone who had retired early from Wall Street and was looking for a business in the country, so Carter and some of his friends came on board, and the company took over a large space in an abandoned mill in North Adams.
Though Alliance provided me a bridge by which to return to the Berkshires, I was ill-suited to the work I found there, and the chaos of a start-up was not what I needed while looking for the least bit of security and order in my own life. I made some headway designing pre-computer systems of production management, but balked at accounting chores. After my own years in business, I realize now that I have bookkeeper’s block even worse than writer’s block, an ingrained resistance to contemplating depressing rows of numbers. So I got out as soon as I could.
The conjoined and overwhelming questions of home, work, and family obsessed me at the time. With no obvious answers in view I had to strain my attention for the smallest signs of direction. The essay I’m about to transcribe might have been what led my brother to call me the most superstitious person he knew, and it is certainly all about waiting for a signpost to the future. But now that the future is past, it’s pretty easy to say that there was an effective critical intelligence at play even in my most magical thinking. Even in my groping blindness, there was vision at work.
Whatever answers I found were soon overwhelmed by events. During the agonizing months at Alliance, when my own future seemed even more dubious than the company’s, we were subletting a vacation home over in Stephentown, but that was sold out from under us, and in January, in the midst of what is still widely known as the “Blizzard of ’78,” we packed and drove a U-Haul back over the mountain and moved into the Fort. I’m not sure where Tom was for that semester, but there I was, living in his house and working for his company.
But by summer, both he and I were extricating ourselves from the t-shirt business. And when he returned to reclaim his house, he helped me get back in touch with our mutual acquaintance Nada Samuels, who was leaving Williamstown four years after her husband’s suicide, and Jane, Christine, and I rented her house while she made up her mind whether to sell it or not. The following extended journal entry was composed as of the day before we moved in.
* * * * *
9-1-1978: I’ve been free of Alliance’s claim on my time for two months now but it has taken me this long to reach a clear point of view from which to start writing in this journal again. My days of serious climbing have just begun, but the outlook from where I now sit on Mt. Prospect is very fine, the day is clearing nicely and Williamstown is spread out in panorama across the valley in front of me. From this happy elevation I can see in evident relief that it is a beautiful place to live, a land of promise in which to make a home. I admit that only moderate exertion was required to get me this far and I have a long way yet to go, much work will be needed to build the strength and stamina for me to achieve the grander perspective to which I aspire, but for the present this mountaintop offers an auspicious vantage for reflection and resolution.
In the middle distance Stone Hill is just discernible as a rolling undulation in the floor of the valley; it was on its modest heights that four years ago I wrote my farewell to Williamstown. There can be no question that in the time since I have reached a more satisfactory purview. Just to the right I can make out the tandem spires of the church and chapel, Yankee white and collegiate neo-Gothic. In the days before setting out from this protected valley, I looked to them as the undefined alternatives looming on my horizon, somehow they represented the as-yet-unchosen destination of my pilgrimage. Though now they are just part of the wider landscape I survey, still they offer an anchorage of sight amidst the ranges of field and forest, a point of reference in the vastness of space I now contemplate.
I discovered the trail that leads to this lookout more than a year ago, on the first of my exploratory missions from the concrete jungle of New York, searching for a a way out of the bondage of urban strife which weighed so heavily on me. I made my first foray over the Taconic Range opposite to where I now sit in the early spring, looking for a return to a usable past. My initial stop was at HoJo’s for the ritual sustenance of a bowl of clam chowder. Then I pressed on to the new college library where I inquired of retiring librarian Larry Wikander about the possibility of finding employment amidst the shelter of that familiar collection of books, but received little hope of re-entry under the altered circumstances. From there I walked over to the college cemetery to commune with the shade of Charles Samuels, but the mute grave marker held no message for me so I had to look elsewhere for a signpost. I climbed Stone Hill to watch the sun set and then went looking for Tom, who was nowhere to be found. After some more wandering around once-familiar haunts, I had to bed down for the night in the rather cramped accommodation of the back seat under our little Hornet’s hatchback [in the parking lot of the newly expanded Clark Art Institute, at the foot of Stone Hill.] The night was cold but the stars above were bright.
My fetal chill precluded a lengthy sleep so I was up the hill again before dawn to watch the sun rise. I sought shelter in the coffee shop on Spring Street even before it officially opened at 6:30, dawdling for two hours over my French toast and Pascal’s Pensees, watching the town’s cops and businessmen, truckers and lawyers making their matutinal visitations. As the day warmed, I went down to Cole Field to walk among the manifold memories of that sporting ground. Finally calling to mind my present quest, I set off for North Adams to stop in at Berkshire Telecable and canvas the possibilities for local video work. For diversion I decided to take the back road over the hills, and under some vernal influence decided to stop and take a walk around the reservoir.
Happening upon a trail hitherto unknown to me, I was drawn in to the woods by the cathedral light pouring down into a majestic stand of pine trees. Only later did I learn what I had “discovered” was a section of the renowned Appalachian Trail that runs all the way from Maine to Georgia, so it was with an excited sense of novel exploration that I followed the gentle ascent up to where a brook crossed the trail. Now I have always fancied myself something of a pathfinder, not content to follow directions but persistently using whatever available maps, signs, or intuition to make my own way to where I want to go, so I didn’t hesitate to leave the trail and start to climb upstream over the rocks and falls.
In this case, however, I really had no idea where I was headed, the terrain was new to me and I didn’t know what hazards I might encounter. I wasn’t likely to get seriously lost but the slippery rocks made for treacherous footing. I became conscious of my trek as a little epitome of the impending changes in my life, taking new directions, off the beaten path, to unknown destinations, and I wondered how it would all turn out. [At the time I didn’t know I was literally walking in Thoreau’s footsteps, from his ascent of this selfsame mountain a century and a half before: “But I determined to follow up the valley to its head, and then find my own route up the steep as the shorter and more adventurous way.”]
Gunshots of mysterious origin began to echo all around me. Emma cowered close by and anxiety seemed to pass back and forth between us. My sense of seeking was replaced by one of fleeing. Small planes passed close overhead and I began to feel like a fugitive from justice, hunted down as I tried to escape. My climb took on ominous, obscure overtones. I sat to rest on a rock in the stream and to contemplate my apprehensions. I was losing my orientation, polluting the present with fears of the future. Focusing my attention on the flow around me, I recalled my feeling that the secret abides in water — in its fluid transparencies one may seek to surprise the moment of life. I thought of Charles’ death and my reasons for leaving Williamstown, my experience in New York and what I had learned from it. Lost in rumination, I was startled by a flash of color next to me — seeming to leap from my hand, a previously unnoticed butterfly fluttered before my eyes, an instant of beauty that resolved my fears and gave me the courage to go on.
My interview with the manager of the cable company, however, proved unsatisfactory, and further inquiries in Williamstown were equally unpromising. Lynda Bundtzen [with whom I had taught Charles’ film class after his death] flagged me down on the street, but her conversation revealed that the college had already rejected an earlier proposal to set up a video production facility. Other employment with the college turned out to be unlikely too. Though I felt at home in the town and the countryside, there appeared to be no place for me in the academic environment. I did, however, have pleasant conversations with several of my library acquaintances and saw again the fine Cuban film, Memories of Underdevelopment. One inquiry though did hold out hope. I found a house to rent that might serve Jane, Bella, Christine, and me for a summer of exploration. I drove back to New York late that night, dragging my rusted tailpipe most of the way, nerves jangled by the harsh scraping and hazardous sparking.
That one hope was blasted the next day, when talking on the phone with Bella, even before I could make my proposal for the summer residence, she went into one of her inexplicable rages and hung up, saying she never wanted to see or hear from me again. Somewhat bemused, I took one message from the mysterious quarrel — to give up any attempts at self-centered manipulation and to wait patiently and attentively in the present for whatever resolution the future would offer.
A few weeks later I made another reconnoitering expedition to Williamstown. This time Tom was around, although deeply involved in his business and scholastic tasks, and he set me up in one of his spare bedrooms, complete with desk and typewriter. (When we subsequently took over the Fort ourselves, this room served as a study for Jane and me.) Since my hopes no longer depended on finding employment with the college, I felt more equanimity in seeking out faculty acquaintances, and while requesting recommendations I had pleasing chats with several of them, and had an entertaining breakfast in the snack bar with Eva Grudin [art professor and sales rep for Alliance] as well. Having brought the video equipment, I exercised myself by taping at Alliance and doing some desultory shooting around Stone Hill. I also dropped in on a video presentation that happened to be put on in Lawrence Hall. And for the first time in ages I sampled the fare at Colonial Pizza; Constantine, that canny proprietor, seemed to recognize one of his old regulars. In all it was a much more hopeful visit.
The key, however, was a long and fruitful talk I had with Tom late into one night. He was much burdened by the demands on his time and had yet to come to terms with his father’s recent death. He didn’t have the heart for his usual bluster and his guard was down, so we had one of our rare intimate conversations. We talked of depression, death, and family as he meticulously hatched in his diagram of the deck he proposed to build for the Fort. Into the wee hours, we moved to the kitchen and ranged over the issues of Alliance’s affairs. Gradually the feeling emerged that we had something to offer each other and could work together to our mutual benefit. As dawn neared, we left it that Tom would float the idea of my becoming production manager with the rest of the Alliance people.
In the morning, before returning to NY, I made my way back to my newly-found favorite haunt for another crack at the trail up Mt. Prospect. The tardy Berkshire spring was making some progress and I was in good spirits, but for some reason a sense of risk started to take hold of me. Was I mortgaging my future on an improvident investment? I began to have absurd worries about the video being stolen from the car. But somehow as I climbed my confidence was restored, a message of faith and acceptance came to banish any evil anticipation. I felt that there must be a reason for whatever happened to me and that I would have the strength to meet any eventuality. I stayed to the trail where it turned upward this time, climbing steadily, testing my endurance, imagining my effort as a gradus ad Parnassum. The mountaintop, I knew, was beyond my present power, but I persisted in using what vigor I had to reach a satisfactory stopping place, a switchback lookout with a view out over the reservoir. Content with my progress so far, I went back down the trail and returned again to New York.
It was on the eve of my thirtieth birthday that I made my next trip to the Purple Valley. This time I moved into the little apartment in the Fort just vacated by one of Tom’s student boarders, my first real foothold in our home-to-be. The first thing I did was to sit at the desk and copy out a part of the Blue Book, then commencing work on the climactic section of that life-volume. Over the course of a three-day visit, I met and talked with each of the Alliance people in turn, culminating in an interview with Carter during which we set June 20th as the day I would start working for the company.
Though the mill was bustling with the business of building and reorganization, it was clear that “the Alliance” was in a state of disarray. One evening I dined out with Betsy, Barbara, and Tom on the company’s tab at the British Maid and watched with amusement throughout the meal as Tom tried seductively to appease the ladies disenchantment with the course of business. Tom delighted in the fact that his signature on the check was a good as money, but remarks on Carter’s likely reaction to the expenditure amounted to further evidence of the divisions in the company. Afterwards, Tom confided to me the intense strain of doing business with friends and was at pains to warn me about prospective difficulties, but I assured him that my emotional and financial investment was negligible enough that I would be able to do my work disinterestedly. My enmeshment in Alliance affairs was further confirmed the next evening when I went to the Grudins’ to partake of Eva’s culinary wizardry and the lore of her selling expeditions.
All that remained for me to do was to make another try at the trail up Mt. Prospect. Though I was not in the peak of condition and I seemed to have contracted a virus somewhere, I overcame my feelings of weakness and this time made it to the top of the mountain. My exercise in self-exertion proved to be a satisfactory success, but in the face of my encroaching illness I don’t believe I was able to truly appreciate the view from the lookout. I guess my sight was turned inward rather than outward. But I could return to New York with some feeling of accomplishment and at least a proximate sense of my direction.
On the way back I stopped at Powell House [a Quaker retreat in Old Chatham, NY] to have dinner with Jane, who was there on a camping trip with her class from BFS. I told her the news about our impending move and continued on to Brooklyn. When I got to our apartment, there was a special delivery letter from Christine waiting for me, but the message it contained from John Perkins, “Tell Steve to go ahead,” only served to define video work with the Voice of Calvary in Jackson as the “road not taken.” As it turned out, the path to the future led through my own past, to the present where I now sit.
In the months between then and now, I have returned to this mountain from time to time to get my bearings and define my location. The first month after Jane and I moved back to the Berkshires was full of doubts, but near the end of that trying time, after I had decided tentatively to stay with Alliance and to take the house in Stephentown, Jon and Laurie came to visit us, for the first time really in more than three years. For them, of course, Williamstown was a place of ambiguous memories and unresolved feelings, so they wanted to go camping somewhere up in Vermont, but after some indecision they agreed to settle for a local natural attraction. I led them up to Mt. Prospect and they were soon won over. Standing by the reservoir, we saw a group of deer grazing placidly on the opposite shore, and as we entered the woods, the exquisite shafts of light pouring into the forest of tall pine elicited exclamations of delight. The climb itself provoked some grumblings of exhaustion, but once we were basking in the sun on this lookout, all was well. Together we surveyed the valley and agreed that it was fine country. Gliders curved and soared in the space in front of us, occasionally passing directly overhead. At one breathtaking instant as we lay on our backs looking up, close above us a glider and a hawk crossed each other’s path in aerial ballet directly in the line of the sun. The four of us let out a collective gasp, and after a hushed moment turned to look at each other in mute communion. I had a feeling that something had been resolved in that auspicious flash of shared beauty.
Near the end of the summer, Christine came north on her own mission of exploration. After a week of conversation and reflection on our common destiny, I brought her to this my favorite spot of communion with nature. We ate wild raspberries by the side of the reservoir, reclined on the sun-dappled bed of pine needles in the forest as light filtered through the green canopy to illuminate the bare branches of the understory, and sat near the stream at just the place where a few months before I had been surprised by that lepidopteral manifestation of my fate. The next day it was decided that Christine would come to live with Jane and me.
For nearly a year after that, I had no chance to climb this trail and take in the view from the mountaintop, this encompassing perspective was beyond my reach as I labored on at ground level. Once in a while, on a beautiful day when I couldn’t force myself to go directly into the “dark satanic mill,” I would drive up the road and park by the reservoir, warming in the sun, watching its reflections in the water, and looking wistfully up at the green slope of the mountain.
It was just a couple of weeks ago that I came again to try myself out on this ascent, accompanied this time by Jane and Christine. I wanted to find out whether I was in better or worse shape than last year, so I set a vigorous pace and was pleased to discover that I had extended the limits of my endurance somewhat, that I had the power to overcome my inertia, to prevail over gravity. I stopped on the trail twice, however, to wait for the ladies to catch up, and it was only a few minutes after I reached the top that first Jane and then Christine emerged from the woods onto this lookout. I was happy to see that running had gotten both of them into condition as well. We continued along the ridge of the mountain together, the open sky just a few paces to either side of us, reveling in the light and air that surrounded us. Returning to the lookout, we sat to share our provisions, each dipping into our supply of fruit in turn, and passing the water bottle around. The gliders were out again, and together we watched as they effortlessly made their sweeping arcs on the buoyant air. Surveying the landscape of our common home, we fell into a rapt silence that felt to me like an impromptu Meeting. After a time, we shook hands all around and started back down the hill.
For a while I brought up the rear, until on a impulse I began to run — no, fly — down the rocky slope. The descent was not so much an exertion as a dance, pushing off into space and capering in air, hitting a foothold only to leap off again, jumping, bounding, springing down the hill. It was an exercise not in endurance but in nimbleness and controlled momentum, working up a sweat without getting winded, a gambol on the precipice, a jolting joyride. But not without a certain bodily strain, I confess, since the complaint of the unaccustomed muscles on the front of my thighs made it difficult for me to walk for nearly a week after my escapade. After all — no pain, no gain.
I come back here now not so much to test myself as to gather resolution for further exploration, to affirm my vision and assert my constancy in change. I seek a concluding point and a jumping-off place. I meant to make this climb yesterday, but it rained all day — why, oh why does the story of my life seem so rife with delay? When I set out today the sky was hazy and as I drove up the road I could see mist hanging in the vales of the mountain and clouds hovering around the top. But the wind held promise that the obscurity would pass. I took to the trail in a hopeful spirit, alive to the very first signs of the ripening autumn.
At the foot of the slope, I found a backpacker resting. He asked if I had a map and I showed him my trail guide and gave him directions. He had been following the Appalachian Trail all the way up from Pennsylvania, but he said his legs were feeling wobbly, that the descent from Mt. Prospect was the toughest he had yet encountered. I was glad to find out that the challenge I had set for myself was not inconsequential, was a fair trial of my strength. Eager to be on my way, I left him sitting there.
I climbed steadily this time, not to prove anything but just to get where I was going. I made it to the top without stopping once, except in urgency to jot an occasional note, and finding the lookout still wrapped in cloud I just continued along the crest of the mountain. Walking sprightly through the intermittent fog and sunshine and recalling scenes from Heaven Can Wait, which I had seen just last night, I felt surrounded by ethereal vapors. In places shafts of sunlight would illuminate the mist that hung around bright green foliage with an otherworldly glow. By the time I made it back to this lookout the view was clear.
Now, as I sit contemplating the lay of the land, I am smoking the last joint of my current supply. I don’t know how or when I will get any more dope, probably when it’s time for God to give me a kick in the head or a pat on the back. But at this point of change in my life certain disciplined renunciations seem in order. I have been given so much of what I’ve asked for, now I must make something of it to fulfill the promise of my better inspirations. This is not the time to be greedy for sensation, but to shake off complacencies of indulgence and to embody my visions with all the unconditioned clarity I can achieve.
In the distance I can see Northwest Hill and make out the approximate location of Hopkins Forest and imagine the spot where our new home lies. Tomorrow we move into the Samuels’ house, the evident destination of our return to Williamstown. And there I must redeem my good fortune with life-giving work, to manifest the meaning of my existence and celebrate the power of love.
The steady breeze has broken up the haze and is moving the clouds in tall-cotton ranks toward me, in two lines diverging from some mysterious source out over the Pownal Valley. My sight is drawn far into the converging perspective with an almost perceptible bodily tug, right on over the steeples of church and chapel to the deep point of the panorama, where the earth and sky meet. The contours of the clouds echo the hills’, and their passing is shadowed on the rolling fields and forests. The scope of the view is vast but it is One.
So taking this as my place under the sun, I — like Tolstoy’s Levin — will persist in seeing the sky as a rounded vault, believing that the heavens move about me. I will make of this commodious arc of sky a sacred canopy, and on the floor of this beautiful valley I shall happily play my part in the divine comedy. As one must, I choose my own fate — no, I embrace it.
But there is moving yet to be done, so it’s time for me to go down the mountain and get to work.
* * * * *
5-1-2006: Well, that was literally half my life ago. Lately I’ve been finding my way back to the reservoir frequently, making it the regular accompaniment to my lunch breaks at Dunkin Donuts a couple of times a week. Not the pure escape it was when I was working at Alliance Editions, but just a pleasant detour from my unpressured work as an independent contractor, buying books and programming films, at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. From the banks of the reservoir, I would look up at the 45-degree incline of the mountain etched against the sky, and eventually conceived the notion to test myself again on the slopes of Mount Prospect.
So on this fine spring day, I bing-bing-bing checked items off my to-do list, and by 5:00 I was ready to essay Mount Prospect once again. No need to make a big deal of it, a slightly longer evening walk. This wasn’t to be the conclusion to this larger essay; that will come on my birthday four weeks hence. No pressure to have brilliant thoughts. A good thing too, since as it turned out my consciousness was preoccupied with monitoring my exertions.
This is not Parnassus after all, but simply a mile-long stretch of the thousand-mile AT, with a grade that’s a bit of challenge. The trailhead is routed differently from when I first hiked here, away from the reservoir. Now you don’t get the cathedral effect of walking through the pine woods, just across a bog and straight to the base of the hill. I passed a sign that wasn’t there back in the day, when I was really looking for signs: “Be Forewarned: Loud gunshots heard from rifle range.”
Then the relentless ascent. Last time I climbed here, a few years ago, was a rather hot and humid day, and I was a complete wuss, couldn’t even keep up with the Janes (Gentile & Gentle), feeling woozy the whole way up. This time I wasn’t dizzy, but I did have to stop repeatedly to catch my breath. Legs didn’t give out on me, but heart and lungs were clearly not what they were thirty years ago. Loose dry leaves hid many footholds, and could be as slippery as wet, so I was slightly concerned about the descent to come. My heart pounding, my lungs heaving, I had to unbutton my pants and loosen my belt a notch. The good part of stopping so often was looking back and seeing the reservoir — an eye-filling expanse from its banks — getting smaller and smaller.
The day before I’d made it up the hill from home to “my spot” without noticing any exertion, my usual criterion for being in decent shape, but this was a far more stringent test. Okay, I’m not the physical specimen I was at half my age, but here now I was forced to begin contemplating decrepitude and senescence. I wouldn’t be doing this sort of thing much longer, going into my sixtieth year. Walking in rough terrain, altogether alone, in the evening of the day, taxing my heart and risking my limbs.
I may have stopped a dozen times on my way up, but once I reached the lookout I kept right on going. Looking straight into the descending sun through a light haze, it was hard to make out any landmarks in the valley below — my next ascent should catch the earlier light. But it was pleasant to walk along the ridge crest, with the bright light of the sun strobing through the trees to my right. I was determined to make it to the actual summit of Mount Prospect, but as with Mount Penna at Saint Francis’s La Verna last summer, each little crest was succeeded by another and I found myself walking further than I intended. And when I reached the little cairn of stones I took to mark the summit, it was not far from another overlook, down into the Hopper, so I continued further still. By now the trail had become vestigial, blocked by many fallen trees, and I wouldn’t want to be following it after dark. But finally I reached the turnaround view, and then hiked back along the ridge, with the light, now on my left, growing more honeyed as the sun dipped toward the western hills. The elevation gave me enough time to traverse the trail back before the sun went down for good, but as I turned and started to twist down the eastern side of the mountain, the curtain of twilight fell rapidly.
The incline down propels you willy-nilly, but there was no capering or flying for me this time, but rather careful clumping, zigzagging instead of leaping from rock to rock, swinging from tree trunk to tree trunk as a handhold. My legs felt the strain, but held up. By the time I made it down, twilight was going and darkness was descending faster than I. It was an hour past dinnertime and pitch black by the time I reached home, and Chrissie met me at the door saying she was just about to call the police to track me down.
Still and all, old fart that I am, stuck in my familiar ruts, physically failing and losing my marbles day by day, I’d made it up the mountain and down again one more time.
5-29-2006: I meant to make this climactic climb on my 59th birthday, but with the oh-so-typical delay it’s several days later that I sit again on top of Mount Prospect. On the brink of my sixtieth year, I contemplate once more my past, present, and future, and the immemorial questions of home, family, and work.
The first thing that catches my eye from this viewpoint is the open space of Stone Hill. In 1974 when leaving Williamstown, and again in 1977 when returning, while standing on its crest and looking out at the church and chapel spires as “the as-yet unchosen destination of my pilgrimage,” I literally overlooked the museum buildings right in front of me, which indeed turned out to be my destination, both symbolically and literally. The Clark Art Institute has been, for better and occasionally for worse, my daily destination for almost a decade. And in general, I have found both home and work in the realm of museums.
Endings are more proximate to beginnings than we imagine setting out, arrival is return, where we wind up is so close to where we started. It’s all right in front of our noses.
On the other hand, I have lately found the proximity of Stone Hill to the Clark more inhibiting than inviting, so I rarely walk up it anymore. Other views are more favored. I see Mount Hope and Mountain Meadow, for two, and several woods where I regularly take streamside walks. I can see the new Baxter Hall going up at the center of campus, though I mourned the passing of the old snack bar, which had become more of a hangout for me than in my student days. I see the Dunkin Donuts where I get my egg-and-bagel in the absence of the snack bar, and Water Street, where Hot Tomatoes is now my pizza of choice (though Constantine still presides at Colonial after several moves.)
So Williamstown is still home to me, though I don’t actually live here. Less than a year from the time of the earlier journal entry, we moved to the house in Lanesborough where I’ve lived ever since and expect to live as long as able. Part of the attraction of the place was its location halfway between Williamstown and Pittsfield, but after Christine and I partnered to take over Either/Or Bookstore on Valentine’s Day 1980, my orientation was Pittsfield and South, and I would go many months without going North or setting foot in Williamstown at all. The bookstore was a huge chunk of my life, but not relevant to this essay, except that its demise drove me to the want ads, and thence to the Clark — which I have always described as my freefall into a featherbed. And by degrees I was re-oriented toward the Purple Valley.
On the nominal date of this essay — my birthday and Memorial Day both — I went over to Tom’s in the morning to interview him again for the essay I am writing in his name, for an exhibition catalogue on the architecture of the Guggenheim. It’s fascinating to chart his path since the old days in Williamstown, highly centrifugal but strangely centripetal. He spends his time zigzagging across the globe — I caught him on his way from Abu Dhabi to Moscow by way of New York — and yet still occupies the Fort he bought thirty-odd years ago, as well as his apartment in Battery Park City in NYC. It remains to be seen whether this essay will be the opening to a regular gig as Tom’s amanuensis, or just a one-shot that finally came along at just the right time to pay my back taxes. Either way, it’s a big step toward writing as a paying profession for me.
Indicative of that, I bought a digital voice recorder for the project and brought it along up the mountain to record my thoughts on the spot — thus the present tense of this recital is more documentary than fictionalized. But first I have to record two hiking incidents that intervened before this ultimate climb.
On a recent drive back from Boston on the Mohawk Trail, I detoured in Charlemont to explore “the giant trees of Clark ridge,” one of the few remaining stands of aboriginal forest in New England, which I had read about in a trail guide. Directions I’d scribbled months ago said only to follow an old logging trail for 1/4 mile and then turn right and bushwhack uphill. It didn’t take long for the trail to peter out, but I started thrashing through the underbrush anyway. Long story short — I stumbled out of the woods three hours later never having found the giant trees, and pretty well whacked myself. The climb was of an incline similar to Mt. Prospect, but much rougher. I’d find and lose vestigial trails, but when I came to a series of marked trees, I assumed they correlated to the AMC guide in which I’d read about the giant trees in the first place. The non-path was steeper than I could handle, but the tree marks gave me a point of reference, though most of the time I had no idea where in the blue blazes I was. I kept climbing thinking I’d have to come to the giant trees at some point. I didn’t want to pussy out short of my destination, so kept thrashing and wheezing along.
Eventually I had to give up my goal and start back down the steep incline. It finally dawned on me that the markers were not for a trail, but for the boundary of the state park. There sure as hell was no path, so I slid and swung my way down. Besides my pounding heart and heaving lungs, I was bedeviled by varieties of insects. The worst were the ubiquitous caterpillars, not this time from fouling one in their hanging filaments, but because they would squish and spurt under my hand when I’d grab a tree trunk to arrest my plunge down the hillside. The footing was treacherous and fallen branches lashed my legs; at one point I slipped a dozen feet and could easily have gone ass over elbow down the hillside. I was definitely wobbly by the time I got back to the car, and not good for much of anything the rest of the day.
A week later we made the longer drive to the Philadelphia area, and after checking into a place right on Route 1 in Chadds Ford, I had a mind to go for a little walk. I chanced the six lanes of speeding traffic to get to the other side of the highway, where a country road leads eventually to a state park I’ve frequented on earlier trips. Within a few hundred yards from the main drag, the road was dark, lit only by stars above and fireflies in the fields around. A delightful evening, balmy and breezy, but the narrow road had too many cars coming by with their brights on to be ideal for a nocturnal walk, so I turned back and kept to the side of the road. Too far to the side of the road, in fact, since while walking unsuspecting in the dark, I came to a place where the margin of asphalt had eroded away, and I suddenly stepped off the edge. With my bad left knee, I’m never sure whether my fall is caused by the knee giving way structurally, or by reflexively recoiling from the shooting pain. Anyway, my foot went into the hole, my body pitched to the left and banged into a guardrail, then flipped back — so I found myself, after an astounding instant, lying on my back in a ditch next to the dark road, my knee screaming.
Usually I would just stay put till the pain subsided, but I didn’t want to lie by the side of the dark road while cars whizzed by. So I pulled myself up by the guardrail, and limped off, cataloging the damage. My knee has not been particularly problematic lately, but I was guessing I had screwed it up good this time. I had abrasions and contusions from shoulder to knee from hitting the guardrail, but nothing cut or broken. I hobbled back to Route 1, and waited for the chance to gimp across. By the time I got back to the hotel room, however, I realized that despite mishap I had dodged a bullet once again, was not seriously harmed, no lasting damage had been done.
I won’t compare my tumble on a night road to Saul on the road to Taurus, but it did come to strike me like a revelation. The next morning, as I was strolling gingerly beside the Brandywine River, the episode seemed to fit perfectly with getting lost in the woods, as the prelude to this climactic climb of Mt. Prospect, acknowledging both the risks of life off the beaten path and the happiness of my fate in spite of them, but also that my days are numbered, that all I have and all that I am, the very ground I stand on, may be taken from me in the blink of an eye. You can lose your way or make a misstep, and fate can take a nasty turn. But still I walk on.
Coincidentally both trips, to Boston and Philly, were to pick up my kids from their respective colleges to bring them home for jury duty. My son and my daughter, like my bookstore, are important parts of my life that get short shrift in this accounting. Suffice it to say that this then-and-now essay has no bigger before-and-after than the having of children.
Now that they are both turning 21 and likely to return home only in passing, I take note only of their high school connections to this particular spot where I now sit. I have a clear view of the Mount Greylock High School that Rach endured for several years, too small and too rural to accommodate her, and her too much my daughter to settle for scholastic nonsense, so she escaped her senior year to take courses at Williams and BCC before heading off to BU. When Nat went off to high school, he and I made a practice of climbing Mount Greylock the day before he left, a little longer each year until he surpassed my endurance; I think it was the year he graduated from CA to Swat that we hiked all the way from Lanesborough, over the highest summit in Massachusetts and down to Mount Prospect from the other direction, maybe 15 miles in all. That was not as long ago as it seems.
Today again I struggled up the short side, so my range is shrinking. This actual day of climbing, the digital recording of which I am now transcribing and adapting, culminates the symbolic occasion, because it began not with an interview with Tom but with the enthusiastic reaction from the Guggenheim’s director of communications to the essay that I compiled from such interviews and other sources. Both his response and the very recorder I’m using, bought on the Gugg’s dime, represent further steps in my professionalization as a writer.
I had ample opportunity to record my thoughts on this climb, since I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, taking pity on the old man that I am. It’s a relentless ascent at a grade steeper than I can maintain at my advanced age, but the trail is a hell of a lot easier than the non-trail in Charlemont and not beyond the edge of my physical limitations. On the trail, I had Anthony’s words echoing in my ear like the best term paper comment ever: “really excellent. . . just what we need. . . exactly right [etc.]” Though I realize it’s Tom’s response that will determine the success of the project, I think about his inscription in my copy of The Art of the Motorcycle catalogue: “Everything connects sooner or later” — and it certainly seems as if everything is coming together right now. Not a done deal, but a hopeful prospect.
Here’s a direct quote from the recording that should be read in short gulps of air: “One positive indicator — physically — is that my knee — is not bothering me — less than five days — after taking a — rather nasty spill, so — ah — my condition is declining — but maybe not quite — so rapidly to decrepitude — as I might have feared.” That occasioned some thoughts on my late-blooming but long-past softball and basketball careers, which deserve essays of their own, but here serve only to denote the passage of time. I was never a young stud, an athlete in his prime, but I did have my moments on fields of play, on either side of my 40th birthday. It’s a part of my life I would have been sorry to miss.
Mostly, I’m just advising myself to take it easy, slow and steady, stay in the shade; take my time — but get there. “It’s not a race — well, yes it is, but it’s the sort of race a tortoise can win.”
So I got here to the lookout before I expected, basically a piece of cake, a walk in the park, frequent stops definitely the prescription for making this climb without serious difficulty. Ah, excellent view today. Funny thing is I have a real hard time picking out the chapel and church steeples at the center of the campus, trees growing up or new buildings looming larger. Even the Clark takes some looking for, which I thought I needed to talk about first or it would just be the elephant in the room, or the elephant in the valley as it were, since it really is my point of departure in Williamstown now, or point of arrival, either or both.
So, yeah, in fact I’m wearing my “Discover the Clark” t-shirt right now, which I designed on my own initiative before all the initiative was sucked out of me by the Powers That Be at the Clark. I happened to pass a hiker on the trail up, and seeing the t-shirt, he right away asked, “Oh, do you work at the Clark?” I paused a second and then said “Yeah,” and as I walked along thought about it more and more, and determined you could say I work at the Clark, but not for the Clark. I work for myself, I guess, in various museum venues.
When I first went to work at the Clark, I really loved the place, and it came as a rude shock when it didn’t love me back. That’s another long story told elsewhere, but easily summed up: it’s an upstairs-downstairs sort of place, and I am definitely an underground man. At the start I tried to make the museum shop my own business, until they beat it into my head that it was no business of mine. I finally became happy there by learning to keep the institution at arm’s length, and by now my arm has become positively telescopic. And yet still, the Clark has provided a happy afterlife to my chosen vocations as bookseller and video store proprietor, paying better than my own business ever did, with a small fraction of the effort. Paying well enough, in fact for me to quit my job and come back as an independent contractor, working few enough hours to give me ample opportunity to work toward a writing career at last. I’ve been at that for several years now, and it looks to be paying off finally, just when my finances were getting really dire, despite my life commitment to simplicity and parsimony.
Well, what else do I see from here? Where in the past my eye would have been drawn to the campus in the center of the valley, now by sound and movement it’s drawn to the base of the hill, where a bailer is making its way across the fields of hay. I’m much more attuned to the pastoral aspect of Williamstown these days– farms, fields, trails, woods — more than the collegiate, things agricultural as much as cultural. In my student days, after dropping out and returning, I took courses exclusively in literature, philosophy, and religion — a real trifecta of uselessness. Now, of course, I take the “more catholic view” and put my education in perspective. There’s a nice flock of cows over there, little black and white flecks against the green of the fields.
One of the buildings that now crowds in upon the chapel is the new — now old — library. It was built after I left the cozy confines of Stetson Hall, but now is going to be torn down and a newer library built as the back end of Stetson. I was happy enough working there after graduation, unsatisfied but not dissatisfied, to use a distinction I made in conversation with Jon back then. And now it’s coming back, another illustration of the maxim, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” which often applies even though it may not be strictly true.
I can survey a lot of good walks from here. Just out of view to the right is Pine Cobble, which I first climbed during freshman orientation days. Stone Hill succeeded as my customary viewpoint, looking over the valley from the SW, back at Pine Cobble. Then when I came back to Williamstown this Prospect lookout from the SE became my point of reference. Now I take note of Mountain Meadow Preserve to the NW. I happened upon that when Jane moved into a house just around the corner in 1997, and it immediately struck me as the previously undiscovered fourth corner of the Purple Valley, completing views from each compass point, all overseen by the “most excellent majesty” of Mount Greylock.
After twenty years of living together, with the kids on the brink of adolescence, our household split — just too hard for two mama birds to share the same nest, differing faith and customs requiring different homelands — with Jane and Rachel moving to Williamstown, and me in an inversion of joint custody shuttling between domiciles, but my primary residence was in Lanesborough with Christine and Nathaniel. It was by no means an outright divorce, but frankly subsequent relations between the two households have been distant, if not antagonistic. It’s my hope that one day Nat and Rach (“Buddy” and “Bunny”) will resume the closeness they had as infants and children growing up communally.
When my mother died and left a little money, Jane was able to make a down payment on her own house, located with historical resonance right between Cozy Corner and Broad Brook. The Cozy Corner Motel was the first place we stayed in Williamstown, immediately after our wedding in 1968 (talk about winding up where you started!), and throughout our early years in town Broad Brook had been my favorite woodland walk, even my prime location for shooting Super 8 film.
Ahh, I can’t quite make out Tom’s house, palatial as it is, but I do see Northwest Hill, if not the contiguous Forest Road, to which we were on the verge of moving in my 9-1-78 journal entry. Just off Route 2, I can locate Colonial Acres, where Bella lived and where her husband is probably still planted in the backyard, after I buried the can of his ashes when she was moving out of Williamstown, at the same time Jane and I were leaving in a different direction. Though she didn’t want to lug his remains around with her anymore, he remained a point of contention between Bella (at that time Mrs. Welsch, aka IsW or The Spry Old Coot) and me thereafter. I think my problem with Bella, on that next year’s trip and thereafter, was the various ways I wasn’t really prepared or willing to replace her husband, and her frustration with that was probably the cause of many upsets that were mysterious to me at the time.
Okay, there’s Mount Hope, really the queen of the Williamstown walks, with 360-degree views, east through the Hopper up to the summit of Greylock, north to the hills of Vermont, west to the Taconic Range. I started frequenting the old estate there, back when I would need a break from the Clark and walk the carriage path along the Green River. One day I ignored the private property posting and climbed the hill, and it has been my frequent recourse ever since, especially during hunting season but reliably beautiful throughout the year. Just last evening I was looking up from there to this very spot.
It was after a storm passed through — I’d been walking the Northrup ridge trail with Angus (the dog) in Lanesboro (minding him while Christine was in Philly with her mother and Nat) when thunder and lightning came sweeping in and I hightailed it home, just in time to slam the windows and then watch the flashing lightshow pass close by, rattling the panes. But the evening was clearing by the time I got to Williamstown a little later, so I was taking a walk up Mount Hope with Jane and Inky (the dog), and looking up here from down there, with the mountaintop etched against billowing high clouds that glowed with the last pink of the sunset
Two birds just flew right overhead, with two hawks in swift pursuit. So hawks definitely frequent these heights. Now the bugs are starting to find me, so in a minute I’m just going to walk along the ridge crest for a while and then come back here. What really stands out is how much the hillsides are defoliated by the caterpillar infestation, it’s like 50% — whoops, there’s a butterfly floating in front of my face, I guess its brethren will soon be with us in profusion. Hope the countryside recovers from this brownishness — drought can do it, bugs can do it — will it bounce back, or are these part of the irrevocable changes we’re seeing due to global warming? It’s hard to take the long view. Ooh, there’s a hawk down below soaring past, there’s another, and another — they’re really patrolling the air currents. Up above the sky is blue with a froth of scattered white clouds across it.
You know, I used to consider the hawk my totem animal, but then a few years ago I realized it really was the blue heron. Not that I went on a vision quest or anything, but only that I had a few close encounters with herons that convinced me of our family relation. I’m not the bird of prey or bird of aerial combat that the hawk is. I guess I still have the hawk-eye, see much better at a distance than up close, but otherwise I’m much more like the heron — solitary, still, awkward, angular, fishing the shallows, only occasionally lumbering into flight. But I guess you’d have to see me as a bespectacled heron, with reading glasses to attend to the matter at hand. There I am, in imagination, staring into a stream, and thinking how it represents what I want my writing to be — you can be transfixed by the light reflecting off the surface, or you can see the bed of well-worn pebbles over which the water flows, or if quick and alert, you may see fish flashing through the clear medium of words.
So anyway, a long river of prose separates these decades-apart journal entries, thousands of pages through which my navigation has become more expert. And in learning to compose my own life, I have learned to compose other lives as well. Tom is really my second effort at writing someone else’s life for him. Twenty-odd years ago I met Kevin O’Hara, a great Irish storyteller with a great Irish story to tell, whose expository skills were exiguous. Over the years, we finally put together his book and got it published, to satisfying response if modest sales, and now he’s signed up for a second book, with a movie of the first in the works. Being a ghost suits me — I like being a spectral presence in a book, since I sure don’t want to be in the limelight myself. My readers will have to work hard to find me, but by now the whole process of writing and publishing has been demystified to me. I just want to keep doing what I do, and hope only to work for the compensation and credit that is due me. I’ve been getting by for some years with help from my friends, but I feel soon I will be carrying more weight in the world.
I confess that Anthony’s “really excellent” keeps echoing in my mind. You know, I’m here, I’m on the mountaintop, I’m looking out, I’m where I want to be, I’m what I wanted to be. I’m a writer. And I’m going to be able to make some money doing it, and do other fun stuff working for my various museums. I’ve got myself the life I wanted. Obviously there’s still much I want to do, I don’t want to call it quits, but this really is it. I don’t want to say that it can’t get better, and I don’t want to say that it can’t get worse, but all I can say is that I will try to come back here on my birthday every year for as long as I can, take in the view, know where I am, see where I’m going. . .
Now I’ve walked along the ridge and then come back to this lookout. Nothing like the swirling mists of ’78, but when I look in the past for seeds of the future, here’s a cute one: Then I had just seen Warren Beatty’s newly-released Heaven Can Wait, and now in an unpremeditated coincidence I’ve just watched Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film of the same name but different story, which neatly encapsulates my history with film. In 1978, I had renounced the idea of being a film critic but still harbored a dream of being a film or video maker. When I found my true vocation of bookselling, or at least my livelihood and maybe my form of service to the community, I was driven to diversify our store with films on video from the moment VHS was introduced in the early ’80s, and eventually built the Film Archive up to well over a thousand frequently hard-to-find gems. Luckily my prized collection survived the demise of Either/Or and wound up intact on the shelves of the Williamstown public library. Many still use it but I never do anymore, with DVD and Netflix online rentals having superseded it entirely.
So I got the nice Criterion Collection DVD of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait from Netflix and then reviewed it for my online weblog, Cinema Salon, where I have become a different sort of film critic from anything Charles Samuels ever imagined, one of a cacophony of voices on the Internet, to which a select group of readers actually finds its way. And then with high-quality and wide-ranging choices of film now on DVD, and the Clark’s having had other reasons to get progressively better digital projectors, I am very pleased with the films I get to show in the extremely-comfy Clark auditorium for select audiences, in film series of my own devising, the ultimate expression of my public enthusiasm for film and a decent-enough happily-ever-after for my aspirations in the art form. And for a cute postscript that completes the development of technology to date, the Beatty Heaven Can Wait was just shown on one of the satellite movie channels, so I TiVo’d it for future re-viewing.
As for another seed of the future in the past, let me note that I’m just about to toke up again. But this time I am not about to smoke the last of my current supply or to embark on any disciplined renunciation. For a long time, my dope usage was an issue, for reasons of health, expense, or what-have-you, but eventually when psychotropic drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and all the rest came into common cultural currency, advertised on the boob tube even, the question of my dependency moved from any supposed moral rigor to a simple matter of making peace with one’s brain chemistry. So I smoke every day, I have for decades, and I’m reconciled to it, it’s my medicine, it keeps me on an even keel, it allows me to function, so I’ve got no qualms about it. And for the last decade or so, it’s been dispensed regularly by a psychiatric professional, and most of the time in barter for my services. Once dope may have seemed problematic in my life, but now it seems routine, even essential. That certainly is a change — and I do have to acknowledge that daily smoking may have something to do with the fact that my lungs are not what they were, though simple aging may contribute to that too.
One more seed to follow from then to now is Jon & Laurie, who are just now sending the youngest of their three sons off to college. They’re in Boston and I’m frequently in the vicinity, with Nat at CA and then Rach at BU, so we keep in touch. They remain among my very closest friends, though we see each other only intermittently. As empty-nesters, I think they will be much more available for outings, and I am sure we will be climbing more mountains together. The fifty years of friendship seems like an annuity that is bound to pay dividends at retirement.
So now I’m on my way downhill. Man, this is really idyllic, walking along the ridge in the dappled sunlight from directly overhead, but cool and breezy, sky above now totally blue — really it just could not be nicer. No caterpillars, for one thing. From the banks of the reservoir, which was a large glassy blue eye staring back at the sky, I looked up the slope of Mt. Prospect and saw large areas defoliated by caterpillars, but this trail hasn’t gone through them. On the way up the reservoir shrunk to a small blue eye and now is opening wide again.
No sweat going downhill, step by careful step, gently, gingerly, braced against the decline, but descending tippy-toe with a gimpy sort of grace. It’s routine, not a big deal. Just taking my time, going slow, going old folks’ speed. Just passed a group of eight or ten, mixed boys and girls, or young men and women rather, on their way up, backpacks and all, maybe AT through-hikers. So here I am, the lone old guy going down from the mountain, passing the young folks on their way up. But that’s okay.
Even though those boys and girls are young and vigorous, with big journeys mapped out for themselves, there’s one thing I want to tell them: it’s possible to take it easy and still get where you want to go. In fact, I want to leave you readers with a paean in praise of complacency. There’s a word with a bad rap. The dictionary will tell you it’s “a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger or trouble.” If you’re complacent, you’re “contented to a fault” and exhibit a “total lack of concern.” But wait a minute. Let’s look at etymologies both real and imagined: the word comes from the Latin, “to please” and is closely related to complaisance, “the inclination to comply willingly with the wishes of others; amiability … cheerful obligingness.” And for the purposes of this essay, I want to make up a derivation from com- and place. Complacency is being with a place, happy to be where you are.
I don’t want to complain, but look at all the desirable qualities on that same page: compleat, compliant, complementary (or complimentary), complicated. All things one ought to be.
So I won’t make much of danger or trouble, I’ll be happy where I’m at, contented with my fate, unconcerned with things out of my control. I’ll remain complacent, if you don’t mind. I want to celebrate a hang-loose ethic — be reactive, be responsive, be like water, flow around obstacles rather than trying to dislodge them by force — the last thing we want is the triumph of the will.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life it’s that we have the vices of our virtures, and the virtues of our vices. Everybody is mixed — for yourself, you try to highlight the virtues and compensate for the vices somehow, reach some sort of balance; and for others you see their vices but with the virtues attached, or see the virtues with the vices attached. A sound prescription, you know, for living in a broken world.
Which is certainly what the faith of Jesus tells us this world is, whatever the variety of competing pies in the sky on offer from different denominations. I was just listening to my old songbird buddy Jesse Winchester on a radio retrospective, in fact it was while driving home from my wilderness adventure in Charlemont, and he quoted someone whose name I didn’t catch to the effect that “We are divided by our beliefs, but we are united by our doubts.” Amen to that, brother.
It’s a common crutch for essayists to jump off from dictionary definitions of words. I’m no better, despite my contrarian impulses, so what I’m going to do is conclude with an entry from Roget’s Thesaurus. Following “975 Illusion” and “976 Disillusionment” one comes to “977 Mental attitude.” Now that’s what I’m talking about, that’s what it all comes down to: “Nouns: 1 attitude, posture, way of thinking, sentiment; 2 outlook, standpoint, perspective, angle of vision, frame of reference, universe of discourse; 3 disposition, character, nature, temperament, turn of mind, inclination, tendency, leaning, bent, turn, slant, propensity, proclivity, predilection, preference, predisposition.” So what I’m talking about here is your mental attitude, how you find it, how you maintain it, how you learn to live with it.
This then is my own point of view from the outlook of Mount Prospect: My thirties and forties were about discovery of purpose and answers to questions of home, family, and work. My fifties were a decade of reinvention. And now I’m primed for my sixties to be a decade of mature productivity, as long as I live and the world doesn’t go to hell, or even my own small corner of it. At 59, my days of serious climbing are mostly behind me, I no longer believe I have higher mountains to ascend, but I do believe my best work is ahead of me. That may be a glad thing or a sad thing, a genuine hope or a pitiful delusion. Only time will tell.