Structural engineering is a grueling, demanding profession. Days of this work are filled with precise calculations, intricate details, and pressured deadlines. After-hours, many of my former structural design colleagues sought release from this hectic mental work through pressure-relieving tête-à-têtes at local bars, or in quiet moments at home over a bottle of Jim Beam or Cutty Sark. The most immoderate of these began the ensuing mornings with multiple cups of bitter, viscous coffee and chain-smoked cigarettes.
Others didn’t wait until evening to open such a pressure valve. They braved zigzagging noontime traffic to frequent Manuel’s Tavern in an old part of central Atlanta. Manuel’s hot dogs – steamed in beer and buried in sauerkraut – are to die for, but a forty-five minute lunch break hardly allowed time for eating. So they would split a pitcher of Andecker beer, have a couple of boiled eggs, a large dill pickle, or a pig’s foot while having a hurried laugh, and then scamper back to their desks, where the office manager was always waiting with a glare and a glance at his watch.
But in those years, weekends were our real respite. Some found a two-day escape from work in the sweaty meditation of mowing lawns or raking leaves beneath an abundant suburban tree cover. Others lost themselves in carpentry. Or in playing music – loudly, and deep into Saturday night – to the consternation of their families and neighbors. Still others went home, as they called it, even after living away for thirty-odd years, to the towns they grew up in, glad to see the southeast’s largest metropolis disappear in their rearview mirrors. I, along with a few friends or colleagues, regularly took that time for camping, fishing, hiking, or driving sports cars in pell-mell fashion along the snaky roads of Georgia’s Appalachians.
At the end of a week’s work quite a few years ago, my friend Rick and I drove south to Lake Jackson and a cabin owned by Rick’s uncle.
This lake fills the confluence of the Yellow and South Rivers and provides recreation and household water to a large portion of central Georgia. Boathouses, second homes, and tiny cabins with mean amenities lay strewn along the lake’s shores. On early summer mornings, before skiers and houseboat owners awake and dominate the waters, fishing boats scour the open channels for bass, crappie, catfish, or jackfish. During fall, weekends at Lake Jackson turn tranquil. In early morning, a rising sun burnishes the chilly, tannic waters to a copper finish. Later in the day, when the air warms, a few boats venture out to add froth to the lake, and a gentle, motorized grumble to the rural ambience.
Rick and I arrived on a late October weekend. We unloaded our gear and ate sandwiches from our coolers over a plank table in the cabin’s bare-bones kitchen. We were too tired for night fishing, so we zipped our jackets, sat on the porch rail, and peered into the lake’s dark glass. Silence began to swamp us, broken only by the lake’s soft lapping against a stony clay shore. A stand of pines had sliced the full moon into shards. Undaunted, earth’s closest neighbor continued its rise to an isolated sphere. Rick chuckled and pointed to it.
His laughter has always been infectious and, for no reason I can think of, I found myself infected by his happy mood. He looked my way and again jabbed a finger at the sky.
I gave a tentative shrug, still not sure I understood.
“The man in the moon,” he said.
For a moment I took it in. Somehow, the moon was no longer home to its usual topography – mares, mountains, and shadows, some quarter-million miles away. This one projected a jowly, bloated face, its eyes almost closed, barely concealing humor, an expression poised between mischief and grandfatherly wisdom. I blinked and tried to see it the way I always had, but I couldn’t.
Later that night, as I slid into my sleeping bag atop one of the cabin’s cots, it occurred that this revelation had been an initiation of sorts: my unique induction into the imaginative, instinctual way humanity has always reached beyond the fabric of its limited condition. But why, I remember thinking as sleep took me, am I just now discovering something every five-year-old readily sees? Three decades later, that question’s broader implications still stain my thoughts.
You see, my career is almost over now, and a sense of urgency looms. I feel, as I did in that moment of lunar epiphany, that I have a lot of catching up to do. Each of us moves all too soon from youth’s promise to increasingly finite ends. Even the stars grow old and collapse after a final, glorious burst of light, perhaps a last-minute rebellion against the impending surrender of their radiance. Yet between fiery birth and spectacular collapse, I’m sure their time passes as innocently and as rapidly as ours does here on earth, and with all too many lumens left unburned.
It’s strange to feel increasingly captive to career as its end nears. The mental harnesses necessary to negotiate organizational intricacies and a demanding, left-brained career still constrain, but now to the point of claustrophobia. I’m a plow mule on a rocky, red-clay Georgia field, the barn forever over my horizon. And I trudge toward it with trepidation.
Formal education should have helped me develop the insight necessary to step lightly toward this long-promised future. Instead, it merely provided the bravado to carry me through my profession’s continual tests of endurance. Still, a few motes of soulful insight did filter through the clamor of my work. But these now seem incidental, having little to do with preparation for such a life change. So how do I move on? Is it really possible to alter the direction of more than three decades?
We woke early the next morning, dropped a johnboat into the lake and fished along its shoreline. As the sun continued its rise, a breeze stirred, and we drifted with it. We sat, mute, occasionally flicking our bobbers and worms into the shallows after bluegill and perch.
Looking back, the way we spent that morning posed the beginnings of reconciliation for my current sense of urgency. Through the eyes of youth, everything seems to coalesce to a pinpoint about the moment. Yet from the vantage point of middle age life’s broader fabric emerges: life, in the aggregate, breeds malleability. Our looks change. We have children; they grow and depart, and our needs transform along the way. Even the stars will eventually shift their placements, leaving some fortunate generation to ponder new mythic constructs in the heavens. If this is the way of life, can’t I now – to extend the metaphor of that morning’s fishing – dip my paddle deeper and come to a new compass heading?
But redirecting things late in life causes eddies. Still, I’ve long supposed a sense of order underlying contemporary life. Maybe a glance over my shoulder at the roiled waters I leave behind will offer a clearer view of my anxiety’s basis, if indeed a subliminal blueprint does exist. But how do I manage to find my fractal alcove in such chaos? First, I think, by accepting the microscopic role time’s currents have swept me into.
Rick and I watched a large boat with an inboard/outboard motor swoop too close to a smaller fishing boat anchored at the mouth of a nearby channel. The fisher stood as his vessel bobbed. He shook a fist. With hardly a glance, the other boater rumbled on across the lake. The fisher jerked his anchor in, cranked up, gunned his motor, and disappeared around the lake’s closest bend.
We hurry so these days, paying little attention to the effect of our haste on others. Is that why we hear of seemingly nice people going postal and falling prey to road rage? I suspect that such mania requires our egos to extend the pre-Copernican belief that Earth is the universe’s core. That is, we become competing cores of a discombobulated, fragmented world.
On the other hand, isn’t being an infinitely small but invaluable thread in an expansive tapestry preferable to wishing a whole universe crammed into each shrunken and armored psyche? If I can convince myself that the role of a single star in an infinitely populated sky has some scintilla of purpose in being there, maybe I won’t have cause to grow emotionally calcified as I age. Maybe then I won’t be reduced to watching TV news each night and ranting that the world hasn’t turned out as I had wished.
Boat traffic on the lake disappeared in early afternoon, so Rick and I un-cased our acoustic guitars and randomly picked at them, never staying on one piece to completion. Suddenly, on the road above us, a gasoline-powered rumble grew to a roar. Seconds later, a red Camaro flounced into view, slewing a wave of gravel downhill toward the lake. Then the car’s stereo began to pound out a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. We stood and peered around the cabin’s corner as the dusty muscle car fishtailed by.
The driver, a longhaired, freckle-faced boy, grinned and yelled.
Rick returned the grin, and we both waved politely.
The boy flipped us a vee sign, popped his clutch, and raced away in a curling cloud of red dust. We returned to our bench and bent once more to our musical wanderings.
I was born into a generation that exalted nothing as much as youth. So when I heard a national leader say he still didn’t get the vision thing, it made a perverse sense. I now realize that statement’s blemish has to do with a squandered sense of purpose, the absence of a grounding levelheadedness, this absence tattering society instead of binding its diverse elements into a workable whole. Maybe the reason we’re unable to heal our age’s upset is imbedded in our desire to perpetuate youth, a time when everything seemed so exhilarating, yet so simple.
I’m not the only one who remained caught up too long in this youthful, quintessentially American eagerness. I’m sure most of us are so busy we’re scarcely able to see beyond our noses. Mesmerized by career and status, we shun the commonplace tasks of housecleaning and cooking, of automobile and yard upkeep, and wish it onto immigrants and the relatively disadvantaged. Then, once in a while, we look up from our busy days and realize we’re a bit fearful of these helpful folks.
I think such fear occurs because in our grasping for the next rung on the social ladder we flick autonomy aside, ceding control of large portions of our lives to those who perform our menial tasks. Too, we realize these quiet poor possess something we’ve lost: a humble belief in the value of menial work for its own sake. So we look down on them, force them to arm’s length; we become cold and sullen on seeing them eating in our restaurants, attending our churches, partaking of our nation’s social services.
Maybe, having finally stepped ashore from my own version of the youth syndrome, I’ll find that fishing substance out of such mean-spirited, superficial waters isn’t really all that hard. And who knows? Maybe that will help foster – ever so minutely – the restoration of a revitalized eldership. How? By exemplifying the idea that age yields wisdom born of experience, not impotence born of perpetual immaturity. By restoring the idea that being is as valuable as doing, that, in fact, being is at the core of doing.
Night came, and an unseasonal warming. Clouds had slipped in from the south and carpeted the sky with their ragged fleece. We turned off the cabin’s inside and outside lights. Only a few flickering back porch bulbs across the lake provided points of reference. Katydid songs began to rise and fall somewhere in the dark. A choir of bullfrogs added their percussive lowing. It seemed as though nature had decided to rectify the loss of moon and stars with something approximating a foot-stomping, hand-clapping gospel sing. We laughed and added our own rhythms to the piece. We grew louder and louder, until the chorus stopped.
I kept applauding, urging an encore. Rick shushed me. We waited.
It took a few minutes, but the katydids slowly resumed their hoarse scraping. A cautious frog added its voice. Soon they were all back, in full symphonic glory.
I now understand that such moments re-create us. They make us laugh. They cause us to see things with fresh eyes, expand our sense of the possible. They set us on the path to simplifying in the midst of overwhelming complexity. Simplifying, not by excluding, but by revealing what are hopefully life’s greater patterns, the organic schemata constantly trying – against our instinct for individual expression – to embrace us, to overwhelm us with omniscience.
But one need not sit constantly on the banks of Walden Pond to have such epiphanies, nor need one seek out whimsical reflections in the moon’s bumps and crevices. I now recognize something similar in the millennia of art mankind has left us.
Art urges us to interpret events, whether manmade or born of nature, as they unfold about us, to ferret some form of deeper understanding through them. It’s my contention that art, however we perceive it or make use of it, can lead us from our current hectic, postmodern bewilderment to a workable grasp of our world’s various takes on meaning. Some argue that art must be its own end, but this seems egoistic, perhaps yet another form of nihilism we need to escape to reclaim our lost enchantment with life.
Art can, and has, helped redraw life. Indigenous peoples, many now swept into the black holes of modern civilization, believed that art – with its brushstrokes, carvings, plaits, songs, dances, and storytelling – is the enduring foundation on which culture must be built. That art’s alternative worlds offer depth and resonance to the mundane. Call me a backwards looker if you will, but I agree. If art can represent at least a shade of substance in a world replete with disorder, then it can inspire a personal re-do from manic hurly-burly to an adept, graceful life. And if art really does hold the key to life’s subliminal patterns, it can help bind the conundrum of individuality and community into something newly viable.
The next day we fished again. That afternoon we fried our two-day catch and ate them ravenously, with pork and beans and white bread. We were slowly acclimating to something far different from the life-at-cliff’s-edge reality of big-city structural engineers. We were living simply, but we were living expansively. Still, as we knew all too well, time’s confines lurked, ready to yoke us once more.
We hurriedly cleaned the cabin and loaded our things into Rick’s car. Twilight lingered for a while after we hit the Interstate, a semi-darkness that mirrored our mood. Our conversation tailed off. I had nine projects before me at work, each in need of rechecked calculations. Somehow, with that weekend’s unwinding, I’d managed to grow more tired than at the end of Friday’s work. I closed my eyes and tried to devise the details I’d need to put flesh to my structural calculations’ bones. I couldn’t. I wasn’t yet able to surrender unstructured time away from all that. I opened my eyes and glanced to Rick. As he made the return drive north, his dash lights began to reflect a grim, determined line where his usual grin sat.
Ahead, clouds parted and the moon emerged. There he was again, that impish lunar dweller with the half-closed eyes. Oddly, the illusion had matured. It now seemed a jolly fellow sitting in a window open to another world, a world plump with liberating possibilities. Yet despite this upbeat lunar assurance, some deeply rooted darkness began to writhe within me – something that would remain beyond my ability to grasp for yet a while.
That long-ago weekend eventually led me to understand that we live in a time of deep, unrequited yearning, a time in sore need of both a personal and social tectonic shift. Concepts such as culture, community, and work must be redefined. Easing of our cognitive dissonances by strategic escapes such as the one Rick and I had taken that weekend does help, but they’re only temporary fixes. I don’t think the inevitable reworking we grabble for will come through legislative fiat, Sunday morning rededication, or moments of escape into nature. Substantive change always seems to rise from an inescapable stew of individual angst. And we can only stir such a goulash, it seems to me, by following that yearning into our deeper waters, by confronting the darkness there, by using it to shape and contrast the more illuminated aspects of our makeup. Maybe, person-by-person, if we persist in this, we can fabricate a new commonsense topology for meaningful living and working.
As I write this, I’m resolved to reinvent myself. Maybe this process will immerse me in some form of art: music, painting, or writing. Or maybe it’ll lead me to something less heady, more pragmatic: a new perspective on a career that had devolved from challenge and exhilaration to the toil of the humdrum. And maybe that will provide a natural continuity from career to what will follow.
Imagination is humanity’s unique gift; it urges us beyond our comfortable sense of self to a grander scheme. Maybe on yet another epiphany-filled night, imagination will point me toward other instinctual threads strung between the Big Bang’s winking fragments, threads there to re-knit the fabric of modern life. But the job of reeling them in and adding them to life’s tapestry is more than one person can hope to manage. Such a fabric can only be, given the fractured state humanity has created for itself, a ragbag mélange assembled by each of us, pulling its warp and weft into place, ever so slowly, together.
About the Author:
Bob Mustin has had a brief naval career and a longer one as a civil engineer, and has been a North Carolina Writers Network writer-in-residence at Peace College under the late Doris Betts’ guiding hand. In the early ’90s, he was the editor of a small literary journal, The Rural Sophisticate, based in Georgia. His work has appeared in The Rockhurst Review, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Cooweescoowee, Under The Sun, Gihon River Review, Reflections Literary Journal, and at raving dove, Sport Literate, The Externalist, Language and Culture, Imitation Fruit, and R.KV.R.Y in electronic form.