What makes my heart sing? That’s a very good question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I interpret the question to mean this – – what is the experience that resonates within you? what experience is it that answers an unspoken question? And though I don’t totally understand how the question works, I do know that it reminds me of Rumi’s often quoted remark: “Why do you wander? What you seek is seeking you.”
For as long as I can remember I have loved to read. I remember once getting on the green Portage County Library Bookmobile and saying hello to the librarian who was aboard. She asked me if I liked fiction and I replied by saying that I prefer nonfiction because nonfiction is true. After 40 years of teaching, I began to realize that oftentimes fiction is more true than the so-called truth. I don’t know that in those early years of reading I developed an imagination for travel. With a light bulb and a piece of glass I developed a lightbox. I would put a thin sheet of paper over a map in a book that I had or map that I found. Then I would trace the border, the rivers, little triangles for mountains. I was fascinated by the shape of the earth, where the water met the land, how the rivers ran through valleys toward the sea and how one might venture from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego on foot.
So, even when I was very young, I ventured into the forest behind our house. There was a rise in the land between our property and a swamp like low space below. On that ridge I noticed a trampled path and it may be put together the vision of deer that would occasionally appear in the woods. I followed that path into a different landscape where grapevines hung from trees. There were old hickory trees there. A couple friends and I built a lean to on the side of that hill that descended into the swamp. We took great pleasure in hiding out. Though we were never approached by intruders, our sense of safety and isolation was exhilarating.
I think the experience that resonated with me – – what you might call my heart singing – – was the discovery of other landscapes. For a number of years, the Vincent family rented a cottage on Lake Erie. The car trip to the cottage took a little over an hour. According to my GPS, the distance from our house to Mr. Strubey’s cottage rental is about 52 miles. We usually stopped on the way for a picnic and so I imagine it took us a couple hours to get there. I loved the trip through the countryside of Northeastern Ohio was much as I enjoyed the beach. There were different trees as we got within 10 miles of the lake. Different plants, different looking houses, and roadside shops on the road north. I guess you could say that short trip made my heart sing.
Though I didn’t know it as such, the desire for travel got under my skin. While I was in college, we had a number of track meet at other Ohio colleges. Once again, I enjoyed the trip and saying these different towns and cities as much as I enjoyed running the 4 miles in the cross-country meet. Then I began to hitchhike. Sometimes two short trips. But in my sophomore year, David Tucek, my Hiram roommate, got a job driving a disc jockeys new Cadillac out to the West Coast. Out across the Mississippi, through measureless tracts of farmland, across the Mississippi River, in the flat midsection of the United States, Flagstaff Arizona, up over the mountains and down into the Los Angeles Valley. I think I saw my future there. And it was always a simple vision – – walking over a hill, often at sunset, looking down on the lights of a new city or town, and wondering what was there. A hamburger joint, a cup of coffee and a doughnut, perhaps a shady spot where I could roll out my sleeping bag. In fact, one memorable vision of that was when I was hitchhiking back from Kentucky to Ohio. I have become fascinated with the French priest named Teilhard de Chardin. He had written a book that I used in my senior thesis in which he squared the idea of evolution, not only human evolution but the evolution of the universe – – he squared those evolutionary ideas with spiritual life. The man who had been imprisoned with him in China during World War II was a priest at a northern Kentucky monastery. I hitchhike down there to meet him and to talk about this fabulous priest. It was springtime and, on the way, home a freak snowstorm arose. I had gotten a ride for about 40 miles with what I think was a lunatic Christian preacher. He let me out of the car on an unfinished piece of Interstate 75. The snow increased. It got colder. And I realized that there was no traffic on the road where I found myself. I looked down into the village and said I better get somewhere warm before I freeze to death. It was about a mile into the village and as I was walking, I found a few doors to knock on to ask for some relief. But no one was interested in a stranger.
There was what looked like a fire station up ahead of me. I walked up to the door and, hardly, the door was open. It was warm inside. Alongside a fire truck was an ambulance. It was either a Cadillac or Lincoln that had been remodeled with all the necessaries for an ambulance or hearse. The doors were open, there was a very comfortable car in the back with a pillow and blanket, I took off my cowboy boots and pulled my woolen hat over my ears and went to sleep. I slept so soundly I wasn’t really sure where I was until I heard voices outside the ambulance. I looked out and three African American road workers were leaning on their shovels and smoking and drinking coffee. When I awoke, I looked up and I think I scared them – – and that’s not surprising. We had a good laugh together and they made me a cup of instant coffee with sugar and cream – – and if I had come back from the dead, I owe it to that cup of coffee.
One of the workers said he had a friend who grew mushrooms and took them to the restaurants in Cleveland. He would be leaving in about an hour and we’d be happy to give me a ride.
That scenario – – an abandoned road, an unknown village, seeking shelter, meeting strangers, enjoying the elixir of life in a cup of instant coffee, and salvation offered to me by a black farmer with a load of mushrooms. That scenario seems emblematic.
Because of the great friend of mine from college, I had the opportunity to sail across the ocean in a small boat. Across the English Channel, down the Rhine River, into the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, down the coast of Morocco, across to the Canary Islands, down to Cabo Verde, and across the big Atlantic. Each day was a revelation. It was there that I actually learned that the earth is round because I could see the masts of sailboats and freighters get into the ocean’s edge and slip away. And, in one memorable evening in the middle of the Atlantic, I stepped out into the night. The sea was calm as could be – – in fact it was a mirror of the sky above me. The Milky Way became not individual stars, but a great ribbon of milky light reflected into the ocean exactly as it appeared above. It was like being in the middle of a dark, dark sphere. That evening fulfilled for me something that I had always been looking for without knowing its name. That is, to find an attachment, with the earth. To have my heart sing, to sing of the place of the self-conscious human enlarger environment.
Other experiences have strengthened both the need and the fulfillment of that experience of being human in the natural world.