The Hills are Alive

The other day a rock spoke to me –well, I suppose it was more of a boulder if you want to quibble, but it caught my attention anyway. There were no words, of course –rocks do not speak in words- but there was something about it that announced its presence. A speck of mineral perhaps, or a gleam of quartz that watched me as I approached and then signalled me to stop. Commanded me to stop. And when I bent down to examine it more closely and ran my fingers over its stubbled skin, I suddenly realized how poorly we define Life; how spirit, or something akin resides in everything –if only because our focussed perception grants it a special existence: a place somewhere inside our heads, a neurological pattern to which we assign a meaning, a memory that entrains feeling. We breath our own life into nature…

Could it be a search for kinship that makes life bubble from the most unlikely sources? The feeling that if we could only bridge the abyss that seems to yawn indifferently between the I in here and the rest –the it out there- we would not be so alone? That if there really were a spirit that enlivens those things which encase us, trap us in ourselves, we would be members of the club to which we have been so far excluded?

Every so often, the barriers drop away; sometimes it is on a trail in the mountains when I feel the boundaries dissolve, the cage disappear, and I am wandering not in wilderness, but in myself -in us– And I am as much out there as inside my head –a secular agape

As I age, it seems to be happening more often, and although it is epiphanous and profound, it is also worrisome. There is a stage in life when the experience is no longer seen by others as merely idiosyncratic, but pathological –a sign that things are short-circuiting in the control panel, or are at least being rerouted, being forced along a detour that never succeeds in finding its proper destination.

It happened to me again as I walked through a suburban park on a cold and windy afternoon. Dark and ominous clouds had palled the sky, threatening more than the damp grey maelstrom sweeping through the wildly dancing branches that cloistered the gravelled path. The world was a dervish, and for a moment –in the briefest speck of timelessness- so was I…

But I was on my way to visit someone, so I thought I would confess my angst to him. Friends, after all, are the only proxies of boundary-breaches we are allowed. George, an emeritus professor of Philosophy, would accept that, although it would only come after a hard-fought slog through the peregrinations of his mind. I just solicit his opinion in extremis –when the topic is important, and resolution is fraught with pitfalls. Satisfaction rarely comes unbruised.

Despite the wind –or perhaps because of it- I found him wandering in the November remnants of his garden when I arrived. As usual he was wearing the blue woolen toque he’d knitted for himself, and the heavy, grey, ankle-length coat he donned at the slightest provocation. His smile on seeing me approach through the storm of swirling leaves percolating above the lawn seemed to vindicate his choice of clothes.

“Goz!” he shouted above the wind when he saw me.

I hate it when he calls me my childhood nickname, but I suppose it’s the price I have to pay for his friendship. “George!” I called back, trying to vilify the sound, but I think the nuances I had intended were lost in the turmoil that surrounded us.

“I’m just seeing how my perennials are doing,” he said, ignoring any slight that might have slipped through the curtain of noise. “Still some chives over there,” he yelled as if I were still somewhere in the fountain of yellow leaves on the grass. Then he pointed to a rather nondescript patch of mud near his feet. I didn’t see anything even resembling the carcass of a chive, so I smiled and tried to twinkle my eyes, at the boot print he seemed to be indicating.

My theatrics were lost on him, of course. “No, no Goz, the chives are over there,” and he nodded his head at something over his shoulder, presumably. “Here is the buried treasure,” he continued almost reverently. “Potatoes.”

I couldn’t see anything but dirt and footprints, so I walked over to inspect the area more closely. I don’t garden, so the significance of the trodden earth was not at all apparent even when I bent down for a closer look. “Uhmm…”

A condescending smile suddenly surfaced on his face. “You don’t see anything do you, Goz?” I despatched my eyes on what I hoped would be a search and destroy mission on his paternalistic expression, but he parried them with a shrug. “I left a few in the ground. They’ll awaken next spring and the miracle of Samsara will again emerge.”

I also find it irritating when he waxes pedantic and pulls some reference or other from his head like a magician’s rabbit. I’m not even sure he realizes what he’s doing –it was so much a part of his former existence.

“This is such an interesting time of year, don’t you think?” he continued, as if he were about to draw my attention to another bullet point in his PowerPoint presentation. “It’s almost as if we assume that there is death all around us. Even the dirt seems drab and lifeless doesn’t it?”

I searched his face for a moment, fully expecting him to follow with the usual parable of spring rebirth, but he remained quiet for the longest time and scanned the little rock terraces he’d built for his plants over the years.

“I sometimes wonder what we expect of life,” he said, after picking up a heavy rock that had fallen from its place in one of the granite walls. He replaced it carefully and wiped off its muddy surface with his hand then stared at its rough, variegated veneer for a minute. “And why we privilege things that grow, over those that don’t…” He glanced at me. “Is there really a difference, or is it an arbitrary assignation of unearned value?”

I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was scratching the same facade I had felt.

“Reversion to the mean?” he suggested after a moment of letting his eyes wander across the garden to the mountains, just visible above the trees that ringed his yard.

“Pardon me?” Sometimes he let his thoughts escape, unintroduced, from their usual playground in his head.

He smiled and sent his eyes to perch on my face, but I had a feeling he was somewhere else. “It’s not exactly that…” he admitted with uncharacteristic candour as he sorted through the permutations and combinations he had unleashed inside. “…But, it seems to me that we have confused the properties with the thing exhibiting them -the adjectives with the noun. Conflated them, in fact…”

I shrugged in hopes he would think I was following him, but in fact we both knew I wasn’t. And yet I had a feeling that we felt the same, but used different words. That although there is no doubt a boundary that separates eccentricity from madness, idiosyncrasy from dementia, we were both watching from the same, but distant shore.


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