Just curious: How local?

Button on the sidewalk in Canada
A button at your feet. In Canada, we found a button on the sidewalk. It seemed like such a good idea, but it didn’t work. (click to enlarge)
I named this space Curiously Local when I first began writing here in 2009. I had come into my 60th year, and was beginning to suspect that the next ten years of my life might turn out to be considerably different from anything I could imagine. Or worse, that they might end up being more of exactly the same.

Both outcomes begged the question, “Who’s in charge here?”. It’s always a good question to consider from time to time during the course of one’s life, but since good questions are those which can easily lead to unpalatable answers, I’ve ducked the issue whenever possible. Do we really have any control over how our lives play out, or do we only have control over how powerfully we want to believe in the illusion of control. And is control really the best way to think about what life is all about?

OK, so press me and I will tell you with a straight face that I have chosen the course of my life by making decisions, little and large, daily and weekly, and often with great purpose and industry, spectacle and noise. I will tell you that after I have made those decisions I nail them down in front of me like lumber on a boardwalk across a mucky and delicate wetlands.

But as satisfying as it is to make a decision–you know, lay the board down in front of the others, bang in the nails–I am quietly troubled by my suspicion that most decisions are little more that the inevitable expression of inclinations and habits. That class of determiners which we might call “The ways I am that make me do the stuff I do”. The rut-captured routines that are imbedded so deeply in us that we would have a devil of a time calling them up and naming them, let alone parsing the bargains we’ve made so we never have to acknowledge how helpless we are to change them.

Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles: his soul for all the knowledge in the world.

My deal with my devil: my soul for leaving me be just the way I am.

I think Curiously Local was my attempt to name the conundrum of having to live out one’s life as an imperfect mind puppeteered by often invisible inclinations inside a body that stubbornly refuses to be anything other than deliciously, pathetically, astonishingly and sometimes grotesquely physical.

A life…mine and yours…is nothing if not curious, and because it spins along in the physical world, it is unremittingly local. But it’s what we do on that location that matters. It’s what we do, not what we are, that matters.

Curiously Local is a description. It names a state of being. In my mind, it’s actually a descendent of “Wherever you go, there you are.” Confucius was supposedly the guy who said that first. It was uttered by the movie character Buckaroo Banzai and became a minor cultural meme. And Jon Kabat-Zinn used it as the title for a very popular book on mindfulness.

But life is about both being and doing so a description of a state of being, “Curiously local,”or “Wherever you go, there you are,” really needs a tagline that suggests action.

For me, the tag line to Buckaroo Banzai’s “Wherever you go, there you are,” is the title of a book published in 1971 by Ram Dass, “Be Here Now”.

Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert, was a friend of and fellow-traveler with Timothy Leary. And if you don’t know who Timothy Leary was, you should brush up on the origins of the American counter-culture, circa 1960.

The tag line for Curiously Local is “Plant your garden at your feet.” The verb form there is what’s called the imperative tense. It’s basically a command. In polite society we preface an imperative with “please”.

But there’s no escaping the fact that “Plant your garden at your feet,” like “Be Here Now,” is a directive, an admonishment, a suggestion or reminder. It’s not exactly a demand or a command, unless you choose to take it that way. When I came up the tag line, I didn’t realize how important it would become for me, or even that I would follow the suggestion quite literally. Since 2009 I have planted gardens in the six most important locations currently in my life: my home in Warner, NH, the two houses my father owns where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my father-in-law’s house in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the homes of both of my kids, in Somerville, MA and Saratoga Springs, NY.

I have indeed planted gardens at my feet. And left them for other people to eat what grew there. Does any of this mean that I am any closer to knowing whether what I do today, or will do tomorrow, is a result of clear, conscious, rational decision? One board in front of the other? Or whether what I do is less conscious decision and more an unacknowledged shove from all that I have become up to this point?

I just dunno. Too hard. Too complicated. So I do the best that I think I can. And then I try to do a little better. I stop, take a breath, figure out where I am, look down at my feet, plant whatever I have, and maybe move on while what I’ve planted grows by itself into what it will be.