THERE IS A quiet clearing alongside a pond in the forest not far from here.
That’s how I like to think about it, anyway, because it sounds like I live in the deep woods, perhaps in some magnificent and lonesome boreal expanse, which I do not. I live in Decatur, Georgia, a small city. Atlanta, which you may have heard of, is a suburb of Decatur. So it’s more accurate to say:
There is a grassy patch surrounded by some trees and a retention basin not far from here.
These trees and this basin are themselves surrounded by streets and cars and city buses and old closely-spaced houses. The pond is sealed behind a chain-link fence, which itself is covered in kudzu. So you cannot actually see the water without some effort. A concrete manhole juts out of the grass near the center of the patch. Immediately to the north is the college running track. Just beyond this is the science building (“here”), the college, and downtown Decatur: hulking public buildings, banks, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, churches, train stations, pedestrians galore. Surrounding Decatur is the metro itself, 5.5 million souls getting through the day, every day. The interstates never sleep. Overhead, jets fly into and out of ATL without letup. It’s a noisy and bright place.
This is not only accurate, it is good. I love my city.
But I also love my quiet clearing alongside the pond in the forest. On better days I walk over to it and sit for a few minutes to pray and meditate as I’m able. I imagine I’m in a far northern wood, a thousand miles from civilization. I take my binoculars and scope the place out.
There’s always something. Some days it’s a new species like a grosbeak or Tennessee warbler. Sometimes I get an excellent look at a familiar but stunning bird like a pileated woodpecker. One day an eastern towhee, a secretive and beautiful creature, hopped within a few feet of me, totally unaware of my presence. I nearly had a heart attack.
Sometimes the pleasures are less obvious. Last Friday afternoon I walked over and sat down. The sun was low and nothing AT ALL was happening. The crows and jays and cardinals and thrashers that usually fill the place were absent. With no birds to occupy my attention I became aware of the fact that I was worried. My worry is always there but I can only hear it when it’s quiet and I’m not distracted. It goes something like this:
The kids are not okay.
I am a not a good father.
My country is going to hell.
I do not like my neck.
I will not see a total solar eclipse before I die.
I will die.
Each thought a dull blow to my soul.
I inhaled and started counting out my breaths because that’s what all the super-balanced mindfulness people say to do.
Then a small bird landed on the uppermost branch of a very tall tree on the far side of the basin. I pulled up my binoculars and got a fix on it. The sky was bright behind it so I could see only its silhouette. It was an eastern phoebe. I knew this by the way it continuously worked its tail like a stir stick. I had read about phoebes doing that, and there it was! A tiny but real connection and a funny thing to see. He sat way up there stirring and surveying like the Swizzle King of Atlanta. It spotted a flying bug and went after it and returned to its perch. It did this a few more times and then zipped away for good.
I stood up and left the place.
On the way back the low sun and yellow leaves reminded me of Dad. I missed him so suddenly that it took my breath away. I stood for a few minutes in the shade, looking up at the trees. A Delta jet, banking north, flashed high above them. I knew it was Delta because of the red tail. I thought of the trips he took with me to India, to the UK, to Eastern Europe. He was an excellent travel partner.
Worry is about me. Grief is about everything. It is fundamental, cosmic, and unpolluted by ego. It comes like quicksilver out of its hiding place at the center of the universe and cuts me clean open, exposing me to the noise and light of the world, leaving me standing, poor and empty and free, in the midst of the city I love.