People don’t play in the dirt enough. I want to play in the dirt more; to sit beneath a Maple tree, covered in sap, making dirt pies out of fresh mud and sticks. I want to walk until I can’t see houses or roads, encased by the brilliance of a fully green forest peppering my sights with tulips and daffodils. I want to leave only footprints, take only photographs. I want to be one with the natural world, at peace with the infinite.
If only this was life. But it is not, at least mostly, though there is always the opportunity to take time away from reality and dip into your local trail system, take trips to national parks and sleep beneath the canopies of leaves and the stars beyond. Without question, this is our natural state: to be strewn by the wind and correct with the dew. To be quiet with the divine and even with the heavens.
Coupled with my desire for nature is an adjacent memory of my time with the city. New York most of all is a hell of a place, but Portland too, beasts of burden on all things alive. There is a lot to like about a city, true. When I wanted a slice of pizza in the middle of the night, I could make that happen. When I wanted to play a show at a bar, there were ones who would gladly take me, pay me my few dollars, give me a drink or two, and send me on my way. And when I wanted to just travel with no destination, the train held me in its palms, allowing me my trek for just a one time fee or, when I didn’t have the money, a stolen fare. My seat to nowhere wasn’t so different from my place in the dirt. There is clear reason for either venture. But best to keep things clean, perhaps.
With cleanliness, though, comes little absolution. There is imagination in the dirt, there is hope in a train ride, there is playfulness in feeling in step with their respective divinity. Where there is too much thought about why, there is a guilt in being so sedentary. I mean, why pretend the dirt can be eaten when there are times when all that there is to be eaten is dirt? Is it the idea of what’s possible? or is it a premonition of what is to come? Is sitting and waiting for nothing so in tune with the sacred? Is standing in front of a small crowd of people playing songs any less a fantasy than an open flame within a campsite? Is there meaning in a performance after a long ride on the rails? I am not myself when I am on stage. I transcend reality when I offer my creations of sticks and dirt. I do not hear the hum of existence without singing in my ears. And so I am left to idle. To feel God when communing with the forest. To wonder if It is on the train.
Acts of creation are neither here nor there. They perform the author’s bent for description or pontification. Stories told sideways never have nobody cheering them on. The probable sin of art lies at the heart of the creator: portions of processes of thought so often work against the truth of the situation. No eyes wide shut for a dancing fact; no mind shuttered to the passing exact.
As close as one can get to the hum of the universe also lies bare upon the sidewalk. Congruent with the dust of the wilderness is the grime of the city. Yet no one living in one place can subsist on the other. The woods mark their own territory and lead you to their fruit; the city finds you begging for cents or stealing from grocery stores. There is no less barbarism in the vagrant than the mountain man. Each is rough as hell with no regard for their fellows. A sandwich costs as much to a starving city bum as big game beckons to the tented camper. I suppose what connects them is the fact that neither barely eats.
I am not a mountain man, though I have spent some time in the forest, viewing trees upon trees as little but in skewed perspective, all of them surrounding me and hugging me close. And I am not a vagrant, at least anymore, though at one time I begged for scraps, for dollars, for cigarettes, playing my guitar and then weeping when it was stolen. I busked for a while and was able to eat, then alone, without the music to churn me, without the hope of some help.
It is that concept of Help, capitalized, that seems the thread by which these concurrent notions are held together. There is nothing keeping the forest from existing without you. And there is nothing time spent on the streets won’t teach you in retrospect. Sleeping on the ground is a funny thing, and it relies mostly on the context by which it is performed. True that my time spent living on the streets was not time spent sleeping there. I walked and walked, finding people to bum me a cigarette or buy me a drink, sat in bars and coffee shops manically writing poetry that I have long since given up wondering what it meant. Panic set in at some point. And the feeling that God was ever present was probably the only thing that kept me alive. God in the eyes of strangers, in the random patches of green, and not in the skies peering down. The divine sat in my escape into city parks, where I could still see houses, but where I could sleep for a while on the grass, pretending it was what I had always planned to do, my eyes closed to the realities of my predicament, if only for a moment. I’ve often enjoyed sleeping outside.
Life is a funny thing. It takes you all sorts of places. There is a randomness to existence that I have learned to feel more comforted than terrorized by. My time spent on this plane has been littered with strange occurrences, with manic impulses and portioned regret. Every time I think about my childhood, I am met with memories of a very shy, nervous, sad and lonely boy, smaller than his peers but still a bit athletic, obsessed with The Beatles and rewatching Marx Brothers movies until he could recite each absurdity as it came across the screen. I was always much older than my years: an 11 year old watching Annie Hall should probably not understand it as well as I did. I studied such things the way a child does, remembering jokes and lyrics in equal measure, allowing their meaning to reverberate within me. In this way, I haven’t changed all that much. The Beatles are still the gold standard of musical expression. Marx Brothers movies remain mostly allegories for stupidity, hilarious in their attempts to act that stupidity out. These are literary figures, high on the totem pole of artists I care about. Always with me. Somewhere deep inside even as I paced Portland, wondering just what there was for me to do to get to where they were. Even without a bed, I was never homeless. Creation was my home. Memories of art were my currency. Conversation about which was my creed.
The hospital has a different sort of ordure than even the city streets. It is a more squalid and decrepit thing to experience than I care to recall. Psych wards hold a strange energy, a simultaneously barren and overcrowded space, fit for no person to actually get better when they won’t even let you go outside, its own grime stagnant, forbidding wellness and mostly dead with the pushing of drugs. Psychiatry is as experimental a science as is allowed in the western world. Doctors rely on anecdotal evidence and the entire space is set up to gauge a patient’s reaction to their surroundings. Staff means well perhaps, but the inpatient system is a ruin.
The fact of my Bipolar diagnosis as a 21st century affliction is startling enough, but knowing what would have been done to me not 60 years ago with the same illness is terrifying. A depiction of the system like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not too far removed from my experience, with the Nurse Ratched character an all-encompassing figurehead for many of the dozens of healthcare professionals I interacted with. Without bitterness, I silently thank their existence in my memory for good examples of how not to treat a man who is more terrified than anything, and a danger to no one. Psychosis is simply not understood by medicine. And treatment is often riddled with a “let’s see what happens with this one” mentality. It took a decade to get my medications right. Literally.
But they’re right now, and I do thank whatever God there might be. I was a bizarre creature in my insanity, and fit to be tied with the reality that I was as abnormal as could be in those times I was unmedicated, hoping it would be a different case without the dreaded handful of pills I was so often furious I had to take to be well. I believed in science. But there seemed something beyond medicine that allowed my humanity. When I went off it in New York, I was as sure as I was years prior that there had to be truth in my natural state; that some begotten faction of my mind needed to be awake to be honest with my animation. It seemed so obvious. But I was wrong, of course. When one has a broken leg, they wear a cast. When you’re born without a leg at all, you at least use crutches.
Life now is a sort of personal retaliation on my past self. But also a mediation with that young man who didn’t know any better, and a meditation on what it means to be well. I am an appreciator of life now. The sunshine gives me life and I even like the rain. I have a home, a life partner, and an artistic practice that is just as if not more fruitful than it was when I was compelled to spew words onto the page. I am still compelled and am now much more focused. I can sing better with a breath I am allowed. I can scream the same but I don’t need to as much. I can see the end before I begin. And the path leading from creation to appreciation and back again is built with the sort of dirt again one with its inherent sacredness. When I choose to sleep outside, I am more one with the heavens than I ever was at my most intrepid. I take my medication. It allows the whole thing to survive. It keeps me playful in my imagination. It sees me both reliant on the world as it is in the forest, with the trees a roof over a body not anymore forced to walk and walk until there is nowhere left to go; I am tranquil with the knowledge that the dirt path underfoot always leads somewhere. If not to somewhere better, always to somewhere absorbing. Life is the kind of beast that shouldn’t be a burden. Not when it is so clear that its mystery is the whole point. A decade of finding a balance leads to a subsequent understanding of the disparity, its cohort a mind keen on keeping on. The forest is no farce. And the train might take you anywhere. In either case, the elements are in line. Always with a purpose that will one day show itself. Absurd as Groucho’s wit and Harpo’s horn. Alive as Abbey Road spelling the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. If one can only fathom its eventuality.