Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Balance

Just up from the shore of the lake the boulder balances on granite ledge. I’m no geologist, but it must be an erratic, plucked off bedrock by glaciers someplace north, carried along as the ice crept south, and left behind 12,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated. That’s a long time by the standards of humans.

Kids love to stand next to Balance Rock, posing for peers or parents. It’s 20 feet tall: the little ones look at it longingly, wishing to conquer, but only a person more grown up, at the apex of size and strength, can climb it, only someone in the prowess of his 20s will try, in joking seriousness, to push it over as if to make light of millennia. How many teenagers does it take to topple a million pounds of granite?

The land trust I volunteer for conserved this place a couple of teenage lifetimes ago, but in my many visits to the preserve I haven’t seen any such shenanigans. I’m sure there have been. Years past would have seen all kinds of activities, summer and winter, day and night, especially at night when the preserve is supposed to be closed, when Miller High Life was the drug of choice. Young people love to disrupt balance because, well, equilibrium is boring. Old people – no, I take back “old,” I won’t say it yet – we visit for peace and quiet and no longer make the attempt to climb or push. We take our pleasure in looking on.

A balance rock looks solid. But it is liquid too, enviably so, a ballerina dancing through time. Like human life, it is the product of chaos, and its embodiment. What a grinding the glaciers made as they advanced, and what a mess they left behind – rocks, and rocks crushed into sand and gravel, silt pressed into stone, eskers and moraines and kettle ponds sculpted out of the land, and these occasional giant erratics transported hundreds of miles, perhaps from Canada when there was no Canada, and no nations at all, no politics, no engines of cruelty. Then slowly the mess evolved, beautifully, into a biota in balance, of trees and ponds and flowers and bugs. Or so we think, so we’d like to think. Except that lately, the world seems much less stable, even on this tranquil and liberal coast away from the angry cities.

Right in front of me is the symbol of our predicament: this balance point frozen in space yet seething with energy, under a control we can’t see and barely understand. The ceaseless motion of Balance Rock’s atoms, and ours, is merely invisible. The rock is like an upended monster truck, spinning its wheels, roaring, caught in an eternal demolition derby.

The ice age ends; the hot age begins.

 

*  *  *

 

Ever since I heard about Trueman’s death last year, I’ve been wondering what he and his three friends were doing on the lakeshore in the dark and fog of an early March evening. I could find no news stories after the initial reports, only tributes to a warm, loving young man in the usual saintly obituary, and I’m not well-enough connected in the community to find out if drugs or alcohol were involved. It’s what one immediately thinks these days when there’s an accident like this.

It probably was just a lark, a boys’ night reconnoiter of a familiar place on a weirdly warm night, a rowdy send-off for the trip to Spain that Trueman would have made the next day – climb Balance Rock, all together give it a manly push, walk the shoreline perimeter of the preserve, have a beer or two and some smokes, remember the girls and the parties of last summer here, and here, and then that fine night with your steady right there….

The accident itself was most likely a dare, of the kind that young men so casually and cruelly make with each other. Or Trueman could simply have become disoriented in the fog, a random act of chaos. But really, what else besides deadly intoxicants to explain why Trueman - his real name, by the way - wandered out on ice that was clearly thin and rotting, how else to explain why his friends couldn’t seem to find or help him and why they were so useless to the rescuers. How else could he have ended up at the bottom of 24 feet of 30-degree water some hundreds of yards from the shore?

Does one envy or rue a life that clearly had no interest in balance? Trueman’s two years after high school had been spent as if he could hardly stand to stand still. He’d work in restaurants just long enough to pay for the next trip far away. Equilibrium was hardly a priority; he loved to lose it, for instance, in a bungee jump off a bridge in Australia.

I envy his sang-froid, yes, but the problem with being at the peak of your physical powers is that you don’t know it, you don’t understand what possibly could be better than the rush of clouds outside a transpacific jet, the feeling of invincibility at Ayer’s Rock, the thrill of a lay outside, both of you naked in the night lake. You don’t know that it won’t last forever, or if you suspect that it might not, you bury it in the next adventure, which by definition, by being in the future, will last forever. The future never comes, right?

 

*  *  *

 

Trueman was a middle-class boy, living in a wealthy coastal town, possessing certain advantages. Utopia (also her real name) had none of this. She also died and there is no question whatsoever about the cause of death.

Her 19 years had been a struggle, with parental divorce and abuse, foster care, opioid experimentation. One night an experiment turned lethal. Her boyfriend survived, and Utopia didn’t. I assume that the death was accidental, for she seemed to enjoy life, judging by her Facebook posts and selfies (still up nearly a year after she died) that show a smart, acerbic, tiny, and very pretty young woman who liked Borges and could not be comfortable in her beautiful skin. Her mother said, “There was no more room for her brain in her head, and she died.”

The pressures on those blessed with all of the physical advantages and few of the economic ones must be immense - not being able to succeed, or even progress, seeing on TV other lives glorified (or their lives mocked, what’s the difference). I have trouble imagining their day-to-day routines, having had the opposite arrangements of looks and money. I do know, according to news reports, that drug overdoses now are the leading cause of injury-related death everywhere in America, not just in this state, and that’s not even counting the car accidents likely caused by substance abuse. Restlessness can be a disease as terrible as hopelessness for those in a small poor town, stuck without capital. I’ve heard that some drug dealers just drive around, pick out prey by clothes and demeanor, and offer the fantasies of fentanyl. The kids claim they’re focused on getting out of town, to a better life, and I believe them, but their money is small, only enough for a hit or two deliberately made cheap by the dealers, and then they do get out, but only for a while.

The rate of death by overdose in this sparsely populated state is more than one a day.

 

*  *  *

 

It’s a wonder that any of us can be contained in our skins. Our bodies are made up of terrible chaos. The very electrons in our atoms have substance or structure poorly understood; in their tiny orbits they travel near the speed of light, repelled by each other, attracted to the positrons around which they madly revolve. And everything somehow holds together, forming everyday miracles of invisible forces, at least for a while.

The violence see-saws within us, and magma and stars explode without, and the young in all eras take it especially hard. It’s as if they feel the immensities of time, geologic and sub-atomic, and won’t accept it, won’t accept the apparent calm of daily routines. They feel deeply the war cries of politicians, the disdain of the wealthy, the plight (or the threat) of immigrants, the mind-rot of wanting what they can’t afford. Some fight with violence, others with words, and too many retreat into visions. Yet most of us last out our teens and twenties to reach some kind of accommodation and balance. Is it just a matter of pushing against the rock until libido lessens?

 

*  *  *

 

Very generally speaking, we humans peak sexually in our twenties, physically in our thirties, mentally in our forties and fifties, and contentedly in our sixties. The loss of one zest occasions the gain of another, and emotional equilibrium has a chance. Healthy people never have a prime of life.

Americans of my age were young in the 1960s and 70s. We lived through chaos and cynicism, and thought we emerged in sanity. Since then, we’ve mostly lived quietly, working for wages, raising families as if there was a tomorrow, reading/video-ing/ toking to get a taste of action. We’ve had a rude awakening lately, both on the right and on the left. Suddenly, in the blink of a November day, we don’t feel we’re at the peak of anything. Quite the contrary: we’re restless again, sliding down and around, unable to concentrate, angry and antsy when we’re supposed to be content. The populists among us yearn for power but elect those who won’t give it. The progressives among us yearn for equality, but are too drugged by comforts to suffer for it. Balance is fleeting; everything is at a tipping point.

And the new generations seem to be going through all the ages at once. They are aware beyond their years, their dreams reduced before they even have the chance to dream. They stand around the actors like a Greek chorus: masked, ominous, in unison chanting out the fears and secrets that the media, the legislators, the merchants, the bankers, the agents of ICE won’t express. Will we listen?

Abstractions like homeostasis and geophysiology and the Zen of anti-matter may mean something to me; Utopia wouldn’t have given a damn.

 

*  *  *

 

Sociologists don’t seem to talk much about human happiness past the age of 70. Ads for retirement communities, erectile dysfunction, and stool-softeners show the tight bodies of actors in their 50s, at most 60, gratuitously filmed in gray hair and a wrinkle or two. Old people are uninteresting to science, business, and the media. Their sell-by date is past. Maybe this is what we Boomers get for incessant consumption.

I for one thought I had achieved some kind of equipoise, even happiness, to take me into irrelevancy. Politics is destroying that. More correctly, something in the American psyche is destroying that. Our insularity has turned lethal. The country seems uninterested in civic responsibility. Someone else will dig the sewers, pay the taxes, put out the fires. The greatest nation on earth is being outshone by Canada. The body politic, civic, and ecologic is in trouble.

Of course, that’s probably a good thing, in the long term. Remember that balance is an act, not a gift.

But right now, when the body fails, in the young like Utopia and Truman, in the old like me? At least our genes return to earth - there’s that comfort. Anticipating Darwin, the Greeks believed the Earth had no father; she was born out of Chaos. That’s a comfort too. Unfortunately, Earth seems to be failing, or we are failing her, overdosing on cheap carbon. Isn’t that the real reason for our restlessness and our disconnectedness from our own species? (Forget our horrible politicians - they will get their comeuppance.) It’s hard to be at home on Earth, and love our fellow creatures, when the air is an oven and the water a poison and the land a mall, when our way of life on her skin is threatened. Trueman in his short life tried to find the perfect rock to climb up, to rest on, to jump from. Utopia in hers tried merely to find a small, smooth jewel to hold. Their own particular geology betrayed them. They couldn’t change and adapt, balance and dance. They couldn’t find the deep-down stasis of movement at earth’s core, the heart-felt empathy of time, the way nature lives and dies a trillion times an hour.

To be happy, at any age, Earth’s tenants look for and preserve her beauties, in the contradictions of molten rock and ferrous blood, in the poetry of flight, and even if necessary in a patch of pond in a turnpike cloverleaf. These will be my consolations in old age. As I can, I bequeath them to Utopia and Trueman and anyone else who might care.

 

 

 

Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing in the Boston area for 30 years, starting as a 29-year-old production assistant, avoiding the real world until then by grad school, Peace Corps, travel and TESOL teaching. Those years included hundreds of visits to Maine. After retirement, he began writing much more regularly: more than fifty journals and magazines have published his essays, and he has published three books. He now divides his time between Newton, Massachusetts and Owls Head, Maine. Besides writing and contributing to the welfare of the Maine Turnpike, he is president of the Board of Directors, Coastal Mountains Land Trust, in Camden, Maine. One Man's Maine has won the John N. Cole Award for Maine-themed Non-fiction from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and a Bronze Medal from Foreword Reviews.

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