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Saturday, June 9, 2012



Since I told you a couple days ago I may have had a heart attack, I need to tell you now the doctor said that's not what it was. It was inexplicable. I've become convinced it was the nasty coffee plus the sugar bomb of jelly and peanut butter. Blood rushed to the stomach that was sending out alarm. I feel light headed. Stomach gurgles. I lie down. Stomach explodes. That's not a heart attack. I suspect, however, the seizure of puking registered something in the heart, a skip or a double-time, or I don't know what. Physiologically, I am no different from before. But in the mind, I'm quite different. I find myself wanting to see people I appreciate, and express appreciation more. I walk the walkway from the car to the door of the house, enter my zone of shade under the canopy of trees, peace runs through me, settles me way down as I walk over the stones I placed 35 years ago, feel the growth of jewel weed about 3 feet high rub the sides of my legs. Home. I walk the stone walkway to the house entering deeper into my own zone, my place on earth, the place I'm always welcome, where my friend Caterpillar lives, curled up on her cat bed, waiting. Cleopatra eyes follow the redbird darting from branch to branch in the rhododendron the other side of the window.

Appreciation is growing daily of all that I care about. I appreciate my friends more, people I know casually more, the mountains more, my circumstances, even my life. Coming to mind now is recollection of a time about twenty-one years ago at a big dinner for a dozen in Winston-Salem, all people I knew in that time. One smart-mouthed character from Greensboro sitting across from me, someone I was thinking less of every time I saw him, made a smart crack to me across the table loud enough for everyone to hear, then look to see what I'd say. I hate that kind of shit. Some years before, I had told myself whenever somebody corners me publicly like that, I will come out of the corner whatever it takes, and if I have to embarrass myself doing it, I will. I looked him in the eye to say pay attention to what I'm saying, and said, "I'm not ashamed of my life." I bring this up, because at the time I heard myself say it, I questioned it in the back of the mind, Really? I'd never thought about it before. In that moment I realized I was not ashamed of my life. I'd not thought before that I was, never thought about it, though carried guilts. Now, this moment, when my mind says, I'm not ashamed of my life, it comes as a kind of revelation. I'm glad I can say in what I feel is truth, I'm not ashamed of my life.

I can't say I'm particularly thrilled with it, either, but that's egoic rumblings. I don't set any world records or even make enough money to live on. I get by. Sometimes it's like spelunking, crawling through arteries underground called caves, some of the passages so tight I had to tell myself, "I am water," then slip through. That is actually what it took. I'd relax, put one arm ahead and one back to set the shoulders at an angle, breathe and relax, say to myself, "I am water." Then I'd slip through like a snake, easy. It was a great learning in tight spaces. When I came out of the cave I vowed to myself I'll never do it again. I loved it, but don't like putting myself in mortal danger to see what happens. Going way back into the cave, into difficult places, so beautiful, such another world, I was in awe of the experience. Don Smith, my friend and guide, found a good place to sit for a spell beside a perfectly still pool of perfectly clear water. The other side of the pool on a ledge of rock sat an Old Milwaukee can. We turned our lamps off and sat in absolute blackness. Absolutely not one photon of light. The spiders had clear skin so all their inner workings were visible like in a biology textbook. No pigment.

In our conversation he said, "Your light is your life." I thought about that for a nanosecond. So far, it had been the new world I'd entered, fascinated by everything I saw and experienced that held my attention. I trusted Don's direction finding, having known him to get out of tight spots that were so bad I questioned if he'd make it. He told stories of people found in caves whose lights went out and there was nothing they could do but starve to death. I said, "Let's go." I was ready to get out. From that moment until I saw the light of the opening, I was ready to get back to the surface of the earth where I belong. Nothing was fun anymore. It was a matter of getting out. I wanted out, now. I am never comfortable in uncertain, vulnerable circumstances. Until he said that, I was following the leader, glad to have a friend who could show me such cool places. We were using carbide rocks and water in OLD coal mining lanterns that had been his dad's, a West Virginia coal miner all his life. It wasn't really the latest technology. But it worked. We did have a moment of concern when we turned both of them off at the same time. If one quit, we could make do with one, but if both quit, we were in a pickle. I really dislike those kinds of moments, depending absolutely on rocks and water catching fire from a match. It sounds like something Jesus might have done. If I'd thought this through before going in there, I'd have never even looked in that hole in the ground. I'd say, Leave the bats in peace, stay home and miss one of the best experiences of my life.

There was one zen archery moment on the way out. Make it or don't. Don't make it and it's a long fall that will certainly break at least one bone necessary for climbing out of the pit. It was a gap about 3 feet across, slick as ice on both sides, only room to land on one foot; had to land with first step in motion and get second foot to firm footing fast. Don went across like jumping over a mud puddle. I had to study it awhile. Relax. Get comfortable. Calm. I looked it as zen archery, one chance, one chance only, an all or nothing moment dependent on skill, not chance. I studied what my feet had to do and how to swing my bulk through the air exactly right, with no experience to go by for what right may be. Don started to get a little impatient with me. I told him I'll make the jump when I'm ready. Almost there. I studied all I felt I needed to know for a successful leap and successful landing. I relaxed with an exhale, put it all out of my mind and jumped, one gesture. The cave opening was just ahead. So good to be in the light again. The world on the surface after a couple hours underground was brand new, almost like I'd never seen any of it, like landing on another planet. All the way home everything had the glow of sunlight on it.

The cave enhanced appreciation for the green world we live in with sun, moon and stars. I went into the cave enchanted, came out in a hurry. From the moment Don said, "Your light is your life," I was ready to get out of there. Burning rocks and water for light was working, but I had a hard time finding confidence in it. I thought of times I'd spent among people I didn't have any business being with. I don't mean bad influence type people. In the late 1980s I had a house painting job for some of the wealthiest people in the state. They included me in their cocktail parties as the artist who was painting the rooms in the house. I became acquainted with several of the people, very pleasantly. Good conversation, good drinks, intelligent, often brilliant people. But I didn't belong among them. It felt so good to get in my crayola blue 78 Toyota pickup with red driver's door and steer it out from among the new German cars. Windows down on the way home, breathing the fresh mountain air up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Air Bellows Gap to my hillbilly home where I live happily among people looked down upon as the lower class. That's my home. I don't need to be mixing at country clubs or going into places where the sun never shines. I appreciate my mountain people so much that when I ask myself what I appreciate, the answer is right there. It makes the question unnecessary, possibly redundant. The answer is there before the question.

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