Loose gravel is starting to bite through my jeans. It's late September, and nearing twilight on a balmy, perfectly summerlike afternoon. As I suppose it always does, an entire world has come alive, ugly and beautiful and flowing around me as I sit writing like some would-be war correspondent or travel writer chronicling utterly new and pressing events. I'm sitting here on a Philadelphia sidewalk near 30th Street Station waiting for a bus to Manhattan, and this dispatch isn't revelatory but rote -- a collection of the thoughts I imagine we all sort of have in situations like that pressing itself on me. Consider this my disclaimer.
I mentioned a world flowing a moment ago. Zen was once explained to me in terms of flow, as in: we can either choose to be a part of a flow or to remain outside. To be part of the flow is to be part of the world, to live rather than exist within a context that supplies meaning and weight to conduct. Another way to speak about being the man in the arena, or most simply: history. There is no man without a country.
At 25 I'm at the point in my life when I want to live and work wherever I want so long as work pays well and I get to wear a suit. I want an excuse to wear a suit in an environment where standards have slipped just enough that to show up wearing one would be startling. I want the thrill of youthful assertion with the mental reinforcement of a refined habit -- both working to communicate it's time to gave a damn.
I welcome getting older in the way one welcomes anything that's inevitable. With a grin. I worry about raising kids who won't bitch or complain when they're delayed for hours waiting for a bus. Who won't talk loudly to no one in particular, or if they do will at least be in the middle of some remarkable observation that makes the passing stranger check their premises. We want kids or pets or whatever who are a part of something beyond a disjointed series of experiences.
I cringe at the crass -- at the tired Cosmo cover story, at the out-there Twitter admission, at the notorious humble-brag, or at the see-through skirt of the actually gorgeous girl who just walked by -- not for its crassness so much as from a dismal pity. That shock of provocation is a shock that wears us raw, and if sex teaches us anything about living it's that we need passion and real sensitivity to enjoy the experience so long as it lasts. (See what I've just done, for instance?) The provocative act is a one-night-only show, and few one-nighters ever end up as part of a flow.
So: I'm what I'll term an old-guard American. I'm Christian, white, middle-class, and from-the-suburbs-but-living-in-the-city. This old-guard premise is also problematic, because it doesn't fit. I can trace a progenitor to the early 18th century, but nothing of his life obviously survives in me. I'm Catholic, not WASP. I'm no agrarian. I've barely shot a handgun. I'm modern. I possess few obvious practical skills. To be old guard one must have something worth guarding, and people like me are still seen as the incumbent class despite our lack of any inheritance. We're just... here. Like everyone. If this makes any sense. If this flows.
Class generalizations are poisonous, though. There's something deeply ungracious there, and inhumane if not necessary inhuman. One of the virtues of so many fellow travelers living new lifestyles is that they earn praise for embracing a simple truth: the rule book has been thrown out. If we have a culture, it's so fragmented that anyone clearheaded enough to pick a life and just live the hell out of it deserves admiration. I'm not speaking of any particular lifestyle here, I'm just paying homage to Bohemianism I guess. Of the vitality of joy and youth and promise and whimsy. Of the supreme self-possession of an Atticus Finch, of a confidence that belies a status of innovator disrupting tired incumbents. How many are really self-possessed?
What am I saying? I'm a red blooded American proud of every part of our nation's rise and from this love more than willing to speak candidly about its past and present failures. Not sins, but failures. Only people, not nations, can sin. I think we need to love before we can claim the clout to start hurling bromides.
We don't like to acknowledge contradictions, and in the Facebook era we curate our reality by editing the timeline of our lives, proving quantum theory isn't so far out there. I'm a Catholic who has the temerity to worship at Mass and savor the company of gay friends. I know porn and also agree that it's a coward's pursuit. I travel as widely as my means allow and respect profoundly the life of the hermit and the homebody. None of us are the caricatures we're warned about in the urgent and always revelatory dispatches from the media frenzy.
I'm fearful of a culture that we seem to be creating that won't tolerate the concept of contradiction as compatible with humanity. Of ideology, in other words. I don't trust a damned thing I hear from anyplace really, unless I'm hearing it from a real mouth while sitting in a real sidewalk waiting for a real bus heading to a real place. Holden Caulfield's angst screams from within me.
Our flow defines us and gives us meaning, but to be in it and a part of the series of events that build constantly into a history and a narrative and a story of a culture then we need to know real people and connect with them physically and emotionally and with eye-to-eye clarity. This is damned messy, and full of contraction and mistake and thrill and vigor. And it's human. It's what we're made for.
For what less, for what invented-yesterday notion of any one of us is there worth settling? We travel along, flitting in and out of flow.