This experience we are going through together – the anxiety and quarantine of the Corona Virus pandemic – can be seen as a deprivation. It can also be taken as a sort of life-timeout that grants us opportunity.
We are being driven out of so many of our old patterns. We know it’s temporary. We have the chance to form better ones that may stick with us. We find ourselves with more time on our hands. We can turn it to the benefit of the interior life. We can read, we can meditate, we can think. It’s needed, for all of us.
None of us is so perfected a being that we can’t learn something about ourselves, about the world, about the way we deal with the world. We arrive at this learning at least partly through reflection. Meditation. Self-understanding. Introspection. Use your own word. I pick reflection. Many of us – I conjecture this because it’s true of me – have such busy minds that we don’t get enough real reflection. We have been given the gift of at least the potential for it. We have to set aside time for it. We need to take the opportunities that come for it naturally. We need to need to use it – for ourselves and for others.
Our reflective moments are those in which we grow, when we understand ourselves, when we can improve ourselves and our dealings with the world. They are also those when we rise above the state of animals governed by our sensations and our own interests, and thus, when we are capable of arriving at truly just behavior toward others. (What I want for me may not be true justice that will help lead to a better world. I have to distinguish every time I make a decision that could impact others.)
My resolution for this period of enforced pattern-breaking is to become a more reflective being. I have years of catching up to do.
I drifted a bit in my post-college years, my most-inspired, unpublished 20s. I felt even then that it was part of my training, as the martial arts masters would say. I responded a lot more to my impulses in those restless days than I do now. I read more. I was more focused on being reflective.
I remember that I used to take walks every night. A day didn’t feel complete unless I did. I found those walks absolutely vital to my interior life. They were strolling meditation-sessions in which I gathered myself and made sense of the day I had just lived. I find that in late March 2020 I’m starting to repeat the practice. Maybe this is a custom I should keep even after the pandemic is over. I can think of someone who would be proud of me for it.
One of East Aurora’s most beloved characters was the late artist Peter Christian Andersen (1955-2014), a slight, bespectacled fellow whose vocation in life seems to have been walking the streets of the village and intermittently sketching houses and other buildings in pen-and-ink. On hospitable days, he might be spotted anytime between ten and five for nine months of the year. He dressed out of one of the 1980s L.L. Bean catalogs: hiking shoes, khakis, button-down shirts, and often a rain blazer. He always had that black portfolio under an arm, too, and he was out for hours. He thought, he studied buildings, he communed, sometimes he sketched… I think mostly he communed. At least visually, this village fascinated Peter. For him, there was no need to tour the world; there was more to understand about life here than he would ever be able to take in. For Peter, the infinite was embodied in the immediate.
The village changes slowly. The seasons change regularly. The skies change every few minutes. No visual perspective or mood stays long in any spot in the village; none will ever return exactly; and each second of every one of them seemed precious to Peter. By being born here and getting to live here, he’d been given the keys to a treasure-chest of impressions, and his quest was only which perspective was best for the moment of the day upon which he had chosen to walk. All was lost on the days when he couldn’t walk, with no chance of recovery. The winters must have been heavy for him.
I never saw Peter out on any truly harsh days. I don’t think he lacked hardiness; I think the conditions that challenged the body’s comfort level would have challenged his concentration, which would mean that the initial point in going out at all was negated. But you could see the skip in his stride on one of those first just-right spring days when the hibernation was finally over.
So memorable was Peter about the village that it’s a reflex to expect to see him when I drive our streets. Sometimes I think I just catch a form shadowing his unique half-skipping walk, and especially on a day like today. The winter has lost its grip; the sky is filled with enough blue to hold soaring hope, that bird perching in the soul (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson); patchy clouds give it just a bit of intrigue.
Most likely Peter had some form of a social anxiety, but that’s only one way of looking at it. For sure he found it hard to communicate with most of the rest of us – and we didn’t get him. But doubtless as he studied streets, skies, and vistas under the seasons’ moods, Peter was learning deep intuitive things that he did not say – or else for which he could find no one qualified to listen.
Great poetic thinkers of the world – the Haiku masters, the Druids, the Longhouse Elders, the Romantics – would say that Peter was in one of the stages of his training, and that what he was learning was not only necessary to his path but as worthy as any other human endeavor. He was cut off before he was ready to tell us all what it was.
When he was with us I always thought it would be special to take a day off, or at least a few vital hours, and walk with Peter wherever he went, to stop and stare whenever he did, to sit on a bench or in a cafe, and to try to experience the village – the flower by the park bench, the look of the light among some branches, the cloud-bank behind a steeple – his way. I think he would have welcomed me if I stayed quiet. He regarded me as a fellow artist. It would have been an act of discipline in me to see if I could lose my impatience and my distractions and look at whatever he saw closely enough to get it as he did.
Peter touched a protective chord in many people. Maybe the reason I relate to him with such sympathy is that there could be a strain like him in myself.
When I ski, bike, roller-ski, run, or – now – walk, I almost never do so with anyone else, because those are my meditations like my walks used to be. I get so many of my insights on those rhythmic ordeals under the open skies that I don’t want the burden of conversation.
This privacy – my introversion – surprises people who don’t know me well. I can see how it would.
I work in cafes. I come across many people during the course of a typical day, and I have dozens of short and happy interchanges. I try to make everyone’s day a little brighter by showing them some attention and support. It’s not at all false that I should try to be kind to everyone I encounter. I don’t feel one molecule above anyone. I really do care about my fellow beings.
I also give talks and tours. I make media appearances. I meet or am exposed to thousands of people in a typical year. I am pretty lively when I talk or teach. But every one of those interchanges has a finite duration. Those are moments – basically, appointments – in which I’ve made the choice to enter the social environment. I accept what I’m going to get, and I understand the commitment I might have to make back. Still, I can’t break all my patterns.
Late Monday afternoon I was walking in the village and had an interchange that ended up being all too classic.
As I was strolling west on Main Street by the Wesleyan church, I met a woman I know casually coming the other way, walking her dog. We exchanged a few friendly sentences, and got onto the subject of the pandemic. We compared our separate reactions to the “social distancing.”
She confessed that she’s an extrovert and that the matter was already hard on her. (It was one day old.) She digressed a bit onto the need extroverts have for people around them. She was articulate and quite compassionate.
“I’m a classic only-child introvert,” I said. “If anybody can handle it without eruptions, I ought to.”
We started jokingly comparing the two personality types using ourselves as examples. We went for five minutes.
“Most introverts,” I said, “don’t have great social judgement. We don’t read other people as well as most of them read each other. We don’t know who our friends really are all the time. We have the gift of turning people into enemies or at least ill-wishers just through our social clunkiness. We may mean well, but it doesn’t always come through in our word-choices.”
She seemed surprised to hear me say that. I think she did – at least at once – think of me as a socially skilled being. “We really don’t understand introverts,” she said, thanking me. “I’ve never met one who put it all that way. It really is like we don’t hear each other.”
It was time to resume our walking. She asked where I was headed, and I said I was just wandering. “Do you want company?” she said.
“Naaaah,” I said, turning away with a rueful chuckle.
Like the true social deadbolt I am, I didn’t even have the guile to make a palliative white lie out of the above situation like, “I’m just finishing up,” or, “My car is fifty feet away…” I guess I just wanted to listen to myself think and not have to talk with a relative stranger. I was so embarrassed to have to disappoint the woman that I became awkwardly blunt. After that, you’d think I would be going easy on the walks. Not really.
This Thursday I was pacing the village again and stopped on Maple Street at the little bridge over Tannery Brook. I remembered spotting Peter Andersen there once as I drove, possibly twenty years before. It was likewise late afternoon, and the cast of the day and sky was similar. I was probably rushing off to the 400 Expressway and a tennis match or some other sort of concentration-absorbing endeavor in the city. Even then I had the feeling that I should have stopped and tried to share a moment with Peter and ask him what he was seeing. He had been looking eastward, leaning on the cement rest and scrying into the tiny creek where it cuts a passage through the block.
That late afternoon I stood awhile in his former position and looked in the direction he had been gazing. Before I left I took the picture you see with this post.