I quietly opened the screen door, tiptoed behind the shed, and peeked around the corner. It was the second time I’d seen him in recent weeks. In the vague, pre-dawn half-light, this smallish, reddish, dog-like wildness was doing a cat-like death dance over a doomed vole. I live near the Jersey shore in an area still green enough for old oaks to compete with pines for the sun, and still wild enough to peacefully coexist with deer, raccoons, ground hogs, and chipmunks. But fox sightings are infrequent, so his reappearance was a great way to start the day’s narrative.
An aerial view of this essay would look like the Mississippi Delta, its many tributaries on their way from river, to gulf, to ocean. This may sound like a formula for written chaos, but when the mind gets to go where it wants to be, it reveals a depth of understanding that feels like discovery. When it works, when what seemed chaotic is transformed into readable prose, when confluences of sentences empty into paragraphs of clarity, form and function coincide, and the process can be beautiful.
When I was twelve, growing up in the wilds of Jersey City, I’d sneak to Staten Island. It was a ten-mile bike ride along a busy Kennedy Boulevard, over a crowded Bayonne Bridge, and through a hostile New York state of mind, but the payoff was the Staten Island Zoo and the majestic guru-presence of a tired, old Bengal tiger named Zeus. He was caged, mostly immobile and a bit shaggy, but the most regal creature in my existence. Each time I made the journey, I’d lean my bike against the guardrail, find a spot where we could make eye contact, stare, and feel like we’d entered one another’s consciousness. The sadness of his captivity, the dignity of his bearing, the superiority of his strength and beauty were, for me, his wordless reward for my against-mom’s-wishes trek to commune with a master.
The fox caught a glimpse of me behind the shed. His head jerked back and forth from the vole to me three times, then froze with a stare that mimicked mine. He had a decision to make, a choice had to be made and made quickly.
Once I was hiking alone on a steep switchback trail in the Grand Tetons. I was a twenty-something hippie kid from the overpopulated Northeast, recently converted by Emerson, Matthiessen, and mushrooms into the sacredness of what a Mark Doty poem called “the language of the day’s ten thousand aspects.” I was moronically unprepared for the unimaginable vastness of the Tetons. I’d done some hiking in New Jersey in preparation for my National Park baptism, but the contrast of Wyoming’s real mountains to the molehills of the Garden State was intimidating and exhilarating. Then I saw something walking up a steep incline, heading directly for a spot on the trail about fifty feet in front of me. It was the biggest, wildest, most beautiful, out-of-cage animal ever to enter my space. “Bear” became a presence that photographs and circus acts had not prepared me for, and there was nothing between us but too little space. He stopped on the trail and stared. We made eye contact. He seemed to get that I was no threat. He moved his massive brown power off the trail and up the mountain. I stayed still. Something changed his mind, and he stopped behind a fallen tree, looked at me, and with his paw effortlessly tore off a large strip of bark—part bully’s gesture; and part playful reminder of what he could do to the trunk of my body. I said aloud, “You are beautiful. Thank you.” Satisfied, he moved off, and I watched in delight as he disappeared into where he’d decided to roam.
The local fox, who chose to roam in my yard must have seen the same non-threat in my eyes, decided to take his breakfast to a more private place, mouthed the vole, pranced into a neighbor’s store-bought bushes, and disappeared.
When I was a high school teacher, I enjoyed roaming the corridors watching the teenage animals playing post-pubescence. Their innocent ignorance, loud facades, and awkward posturing made teaching literature a challenge, but amidst the semi-wild freedom of classes passing through the halls, I often encountered eyes I looked forward to seeing in my classroom. The cliché that the eyes are “mirrors of the mind” is a powerful truth. There is a shine, a gleam, a depth that is the outward giveaway of inner thoughtfulness. Whether it’s a fox who is cautious, a tiger who is regal, a bear who is demonstrative, or a teenager who is learning, the mind deciding how life should be lived invites all of us to recognize that existence is choreographed by our choices. We make-up our minds. We decide what the brain sees. We fill our heads with ideas, then guess what they mean by creating patterns that seem like sense. Nothing is absolute, fated, destined or written in the stars but birth, life, death, and decay. We make ourselves up as we go throughout our lives. The confluence of decision and accident determine misery and joy.
Most of us are comfortable using the words path, roots, earth, stars, and clouds literally and figuratively, but confluence didn’t make the cut, doesn’t feel familiar in the mouths of many. Too bad, because anyone who has sat, stood, waded, or paddled where rivers or streams merge, grow larger, and what was two becomes one, knows an energy that tickles the mystical. Once you experience confluence and find it useful to describe relationships or the coming together of ideas in your mind, the graphic clarity makes sense more visible.
Confluence is a picturesque way of imagining conceptualization. A morning fox walks into your mind and triggers a recall of a childhood tiger pilgrimage, which leads to an incident with a bear. These small tributaries merge to create a stream of thought. What started as a trickle becomes a flow that needs a wider path that senses a larger body of water out there. Similar ideas within you feel a spring-like impulse to find each other and enlarge. Little confluences blend into larger confluences. Fox-tiger-bear-student eye contacts connect to monkey-dolphin-crow research that found animals using tools, solving problems, making decisions, verifying my gut belief in animal intelligence, which excites a desire to write an essay that suggests that individual fate is more decision than divine design, more thought than luck, more up to you than your stars.
Imagine a chalk circle drawn on a high school blackboard as a side view of someone’s head and face, a profile. Now put a dot for an eye high on the right side of the circle, then below the eye a pointed nose protruding from the circle. Add a smile line just below the nose and an oval taking up one third of the profile just above and behind the eye dot. Fill this oval with chalk dots, and there it is, the poorly drawn, childish symbol that dictated my forty-seven years as a reading-writing-thinking teacher of teenagers. “This is you,” I would say to my students on opening day, “and this is your brain,” pointing to the dotted oval. Amused by the amateur silliness of my artwork, we’d connect the brain dots to form strange shapes that lead us to a discussion of pattern recognition as a way of understanding the working brain, followed by some choreographed questions and responses: Do you see with your eyes? Yes. Do you see everything your eyes see? No. So do you see with your eyes or your brain? Brain. Do any two people see exactly the same things? Yes, no, maybe. What is the definition of perception? We’ll look it up on our phones. Are any two perceptions exactly the same? No. Is your perception your reality? We guess, sort of, yes. If no two perceptions are the same, and your perception is your reality, is there any such thing as reality?
Some would laugh, some tune out, and some lean forward and accept the confusion that can be the first step toward embracing the importance of learning, converting to the secular religion of literature, opening to the relativist revision of truth, deciding that the decisions you make based on the patterns of the dots in the oval will determine whether the lifelong smile line turns up or turns down.
A favorite line of encouragement to my students was, “I wish you could see yourself through my eyes.” It was said to those who showed a spark of exceptional thought; but didn’t recognize it as something that could lend itself to a life of self-propelling decisions. They would read; or write; or say something that combined ideas from, let’s say, science, history, and art classes to form a conceptual pattern that would now be a permanent part of their perception of reality. When I repeated what they said and made a fuss, some saw their accomplishment as a cognitive accident, a brain fart, even an embarrassment. But others saw themselves through my eyes and liked how they looked.
I was fired once for this approach. A superintendent labeled it “unorthodox methodologies” and showed my relative ass his absolute door. But Saul Bellow said, “The struggle is to recruit others to your version of what’s real,” and Harold Bloom wrote that Hamlet is the secular Jesus, and David Foster Wallace said, “You get to decide how you’re going to see it. You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” When I connected the Bellow-Bloom-Wallace dots in my brain oval and recognized a pattern, then placed it on my perception of reality scale opposite the arguments of “orthodox methodologies,” I decided to agree with the writers who I was paid to teach and disagree with the man who paid me to teach.
I intended at this point to leave this stream and transition to another, but I got stuck. When I asked my mind to shift flows, it refused. Other streams of animal thought wanted to be explored. Henry Miller believed that creativity has something to do with the ability of the conscious mind to find ways to go back and meet our unconscious thoughts then guide them into the light of day. Gary Snyder likened the experience of discovering a poem to this:
It comes to me over theEdging into my light came two studies I read somewhere and filed in my memory, which now wanted to be part of this conversation. Humpback whales in Maui after mating throw their airplane-large dorsal fins in the air and let the island winds sail them across the water just for the fun of it. These biggest ever, prehistoric survivors as a post-coitus celebration decide to enjoy themselves, and that made me remember Washoe, the most famous of the hand-signing chimpanzees. When she was told her pet cat died, she became depressed, but after some time asked if she could have another pet. When this conceptual confluencing takes place, when the trickle becomes a flow, I let the water run free, because what might seem superfluous, or an unnecessary tangent, or a time-wasting detour, often turns out to be the point I didn’t know I wanted to make. Grace Paley says, “We write about what we don’t know about what we know.”
Boulders at night. it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light
Whales and Washoe make decisions, but it’s not clear whether they can think about their decisions afterwards. The fun-loving tail-sailors choose happy, but do they know joy? Washoe grieves her cat’s loss, but does she know death? Metacognition, until recently considered exclusively human but now attributed to other animals, is our ability to think about thinking and the insight that puts us at the top of the chain. It’s the difference that makes the difference, and the one that haunts us to distraction. It’s the birthplace of the most ridiculous of all conclusions: “Everything happens for a reason.” No, it doesn’t. The trees they chew down sometimes crush beavers. Whales beach and die. Birds get sucked into jet engines. We smash and crash, slip and fall, hit and miss. Accidents happen. It’s just a head-on down the road, a pizza delivery away. Neat people try to organize around accidents, try to juke-step the reaper, but “it will kindly stop for you” neat people. The neatest guy I knew died of AIDS. Careful people limit risks, get the same hamburger from Manhattan to Mendocino, try to franchise experience, make fools of themselves arranging for immortality, but accidents still happen. It begins with the accidents of birth. Much of parenting is trying to prevent or postpone the accidents to which humans are prone. Falling in love is more accident than plan. When the twin towers fell, one journalist thought he saw America’s knees buckling, but rather than seeing it as the existential exclamation point that punctuated the endlessly unexplainable accidents and absurdities of the twentieth century, America demanded explanations. Some threatened to sue the building planners for not having the foresight to construct a building that could withstand lunatics smashing jet airliners into office buildings. If you were sitting at your desk high above the streets of Manhattan and a Boeing 767 came through your window and incinerated your existence, there’s neither rhyme nor reason to that. It is frightening to see so much of life as chance, but gambling images (luck of the draw, cards you’ve been dealt, spin of the wheel, roll of the dice) resonate with most of us. There are decisions we can make that put us in situations that have a better chance of getting lucky, and we can try to wear all the seat-belt, crash-helmet, prayer-bead accident-preventers that man sells to our fears, but Random House defines “accident” as an event that happens unexpectedly without deliberate plan or cause. If you worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, and that morning for some reason decided not to go to work, you got lucky. If you’d never been to the World Trade Center before but decided to interview for a job that day, your luck ran out.
Robert Frost was the first to break my literary silence, to make the metaphoric sense that poetry was built to accomplish. I was a teenager who blessed himself before each foul shot, believing God, who was everywhere all the time, would decide whether my ball would go in the basket or not. My English teacher, who was awarded the college prep classes because he was a storied baseball coach, taught literature as a way to understand grammar. What writers said was unimportant, but their use of adjectives, nouns, and commas was crucial to college success, so “The Road Not Taken” was a meaningless ramble through the woods that was only important because of “wood, stood, could,” and “both, undergrowth.” I sat and half-listened to his monotone drone knowing he gave all male athletes an “A” for being there. Everyday I wore my letter sweater and a visible gold cross as symbols of my clearly guided reality, and life was good. There was cheerleader beauty to stare away the boredom. I was usually about nine for ten in parts of speech. My church and school were pleased with how well I worked within the lines they painted on the road to being a good citizen, and Robert Frost was an old guy who wrote snappy little sentences that occasionally threw a curve-ball like “shall” into the parts of speech game.
The coach deviated from the daily tedium and wrote the word “metaphor” on the board followed by a definition. I dutifully copied it in my notebook, and when he turned back to the class, we all yelled, “Noun!” Then came the miracle. Coach asked if anyone saw a metaphor in the poem, and something raised my hand. The good Catholic, captain of the basketball team wanted to say something vaguely intelligent in front of his shocked peers: “The fork in the path is like the decisions we make.” Coach froze, didn’t know whether to scold himself for going off script and asking a thought question or to chew me out for being a wise ass. He looked at me, started to respond, had one of those puberty voice cracks that adults get when they’re not sure of their words, and “Good” just made it past his lips. Then the bell rang. The moment disappeared and was never mentioned in class again, but the damage was permanent. I’d been content believing that you don’t decide your path; you simply follow where those before you have gone. That it’s not a path, but a well defined paved road with excessive signage so that losing your way, is tantamount to stupidity. But this Frost troublemaker said that your choices may or may not “make all the difference.” It was my first memorable brain hurt.
Yesterday, my new fox neighbor reappeared. This time he was walking in the middle of the empty Sunday morning road that passes my home. I hustled out to make eye contact; he paused for seconds, then trotted into a backyard and out of sight. It was May first of a cool spring after a mild winter. A gentle drizzle spoke to the miracle of leaves whose variations stretched their green with a near tangible joy. Although barely lit in the overcast pre-dawn, the colors were radiant with invitation to pause and let ideas reach consciousness. “Crazy like a fox” was question number five on a Hamlet quote-matching test I used to give. I was looking for, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” but some students preferred, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” The answer was open to argument, because the goal was not memorization but to see the flexibility of interpretation and the plasticity of word play.
There is this endless conversation that begins with the belief that stopping to look at life (maybe on a road near a woods on a snowy evening), then writing about it and discovering the words that take pictures of it (they are lonely, dark and deep) makes living more intense, more likely to be appreciated and enjoyed even in its sadness.
A fox kills a vole. We make up stories to fool ourselves into believing that voles simply live and die, but human lives mean something. I understand the lure. I wish myths were true, but based on what can actually be seen in the spaces that are not man-made, our stories of life’s meaning seem like manifestations of a fear of the obvious. Most of those I’ve met would rather stay here than test the waters of afterlife (“Ay, there’s the rub.”), because they know in their bones there’s only here. But if you know that and can get beyond the frightening fragility of life-death reality to a place where nature invites you to celebrate the time we call spring, you can decide to own your story.
An accidental backyard fox sighting triggers a confluence of thought streams that look like they’re moving toward an understanding of the power we have to make the decisions that enable us to navigate transitions. But as the writing progressed, and ideas, memories, quotes and real time looked for the words that captured, or at least approximated, a way of living that for many years was mine, a strange detour haunted my truth and I wound up crying in the shower because of a pain I felt but could not identify. “Look where I am now,” is the mental mirror I’ve carried with me for more than fifty adult years. Recently I added, “Look where I wound up,” and use it as a basis of comparison when looking for the joys and sadnesses that are the results of my decisions. I knew trying to prove that paying attention to what’s happening around you while staying in touch with what’s happening within you wasn’t a new idea, but I hoped my version of it was a worthwhile addition to the conversation. I acknowledged the weight of accidents and chance. I knew the line from a Frank Bidart poem, “Insanity is the insistence on meaning,” was the bumper sticker I imagined seeing versions of everywhere. But I continued to believe that I could connect my reader with a method of madness that was crazy like a fox.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Decide to accept a pre-packaged plan that promises a life of rules and restraints, rewards and punishments, stories and dogma, gods and demons, but a life that continues when this one ends. Or decide that when this one’s over, you’re done, that it’s up to you to make it work for as long as it lasts, make a life you can love based on the decisions you make with nobody to blame but yourself.
When the fox walked into my life, I opened the screen door and went outside to see him more clearly. Religion, politics, family, culture, tradition, and ignorance can be difficult screens to see through. Most of society’s monitors warn us to stand behind the guard rails, stay in the house until the fox leaves, enjoy the tiger behind bars, avoid the bear in his natural habitat, accept the monitor’s decisions, and ignore when they are wrong. So do you accept that the Dealer wants you to play out your hand with the cards you’ve been dealt, or do you recognize your mistakes, then make better decisions that change the course of events and prove your life is not pre-ordained, that there’s no prescribed dharma? If you take down the screens and silence the daily distractions, the voices you will hear are decisions you are making based on the patterns of dots in your brain, and Mark Doty believes, “The result is an intoxicating uncertainty.”
For reasons beyond our reason, man is wired to make sense of his time. Reason is a gift, a blessing, a curse, an enigma, or a fraud. Reason is an attainable goal, the essence of being human, an insanity that misinterprets experience, or a God-angering hubris. If you decide that the chemical confluences that occur in the dotted oval you carry in your head can flow into the words you need in order to explain what your eyes are looking at, whether it’s what you know as real or the epitome of self-delusion, for moments at a time, the reward can be peace of mind.
The legendary jazzman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, called one of his albums “Volunteered Slavery” and the joke stayed with me. Once again, society’s monitors warn against obsession and none of us has to look too far to find examples of obsession’s destruction. But if you list those familiar and famous whose lives you find admirable, I’ll bet you’ll find they’re obsessed with something, and their sense of direction is so intense that it bestows a glow of purpose that is enviable. Thomas Edison would work until he fell in a heap wherever he happened to be, because he forgot to sleep. Einstein was arrested for vagrancy in Princeton, New Jersey, because when the police stopped to question this “disoriented” man walking around wearing unmatched socks, he was so deep in thought he could not remember his address. Jim Harrison, who wrote, “You don’t want to be writing unless you’re giving your life to it,” was seventy-eight when he died of a heart attack with a poem unfinished on his desk and a pen in his hand.
It’s not hard to see individual existence as a series of transitions reliant on a confluence of decisions. Those who are obsessed raise the high wire and eliminate the net. For some this is not a decision but a frightening chemical imbalance that they cannot control, for others an involuntary cliff dive that finds a grace on the way to the water, but for many of us it’s a choice. We can choose an obsession, flirt with its dangers, make decisions that help maintain our balance, and enjoy the benefits of purpose that feel like progress and not simply aging.
The answer is always yes and no, so the wilderness of imagination must be preserved. Mind-fishing can be frustrating, because often the big ones get away. But if you decide to wade in and fish in the sacred places where tributaries of thought form streams of consciousness, the thrill of the I-Ching’s, “Perseverance furthers,” can be yours. Artist-critic, Clive James said: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing…A sense of humor is just common sense dancing.” Every morning now I look for my fox friend to see what his eyes have to say about where we are. The next time I see him, my first response will be to silently laugh at our cohabitation in this green space, at how lucky we are that our decisions have helped us avoid the accidents that might have ended our time, as well as the comic dance we perform looking for sense, common or otherwise.
Don Delo is an award-winning, literature and writing teacher in an inner city, multi-cultural, uniquely successful high school in Jersey City, N.J. He has published essays in
Talking Wood, the NJEA Review, Claudius Speaks, Damfino, and Masque and
Spectacle. “Confluences” is from a series of essays based on lessons he’s learned and
taught for more than four decades. His writing is informed by a secular spirituality and a
fascination with our struggles to make sense of time.
Initially for artist Paolo Di Rosa, approaching art felt like a personal journey, a relationship born from a need for internal balance during his engineering studies.
But after receiving numerous accolades for his artwork both within Italy and from abroad, he decided to pursue his passion for art and dedicate himself to becoming a professional artist. Since then he has devoted his career to mastering the visual arts and now specialises in painting.
In his latest artistic quest, the central theme running throughout his work is the human figure immersed in a non-place, externalising dreamlike and introspective projections; setting the stage for an intimate dialogue between feeling and reality.