Long ago on a hot summer day I walked a narrow trail behind a friend out to the shore of a lake near his home in
Long Beach, Washington. Two jagged crinkles
in the skin marked the back of his neck with an “X," and bits of dark detritus collected in the sweat there. Weird how some memories are like photographs while others are like fog.
We strolled unhurried through a shady forest of tall trees. What species they were I couldn’t tell you. (A real writer
knows the names of trees. Goethe, it was said, could even estimate the age of
most trees by the diameter of their trunks.) We snaked through dense underbrush,
sticking to an open path that made the going fairly easy if a bit convoluted. I
had been reading some Buddhist text recently and the trail reminded me that emptiness
isn’t useless by any meas. At times it’s absolutely the best thing you’ve got going
for you, and generally you can’t move forward without it. Emptiness is the path.
We’d been writing together that morning and afternoon and had become a bit bleary-headed despite plenty of coffee and, for me back then, cigarettes as well. We decided some movement and fresh air were in order. Many times I’ve been stuck somewhere in a story or a play or sketch and a change of scenery coupled with a little exercise worked like a magic pill for creativity.
Before enough time had passed to
make the trip feel monotonous we’d reached the lakeside, the still midpoint of our journey. It was late
afternoon by then. I squinted into the sunlight glinting off the water and
listened to the buzz of some insects whose names I also didn’t know. The place
smelled of life, which means there was the balanced scent of muck and decay as well as of
We stood quietly side by side as
neither of us had anything to say that could improve on the silence. And after
a while a thought burbled up in me like the gas bubbles from the lake bottom that broke
the surface here and there and sent concentric waves propagating
out to meet us on the shore.
“There’s nothing wrong,” I said.
My friend nodded.
“In my life, I mean."
“I’m used to solving problems. It’s my default
mode. I don’t know what to do when there’s no problem to solve.”
“It’s a weird place to be.”
We were both happy at that time,
my friend and I. We were creative. We had opportunities and we were making the
best of them. We were generating things of value to others. I knew it wouldn’t last, but
here in this little caesura in the story of my life there was a perfect emptiness
“This is as good as it gets, isn't it?” I said.
And that has proven to be true all
these years later. I’ve had incandescent highs and subterranean lows. Been applauded and
gutted. But the best times were the times like that one. Peaceful, complete pauses.
We walked silently back to the house and finished off the day’s writing work in a sudden burst of imagination.
Like I knew we would.
And I’ve seldom been back there,
to that perfect moment when nothing was wrong. Certainly not in recent years.
It feels like recalling a dream. There was no way to stay there as much
as I would have wanted to. It’s like throwing a stone straight up. There’s a
motionless break at the top, empty of all direction. But only because of the
forces that are bound to pull it back to earth.