I must not call myself one who knows. I was a seeker and am still, but I seek no more in the stars or in books; I am beginning to listen to the promptings of those instincts which are coursing in my very blood. My story is not pleasant, it is not sweet and harmonious like the fictitious stories. It smacks of nonsense and perplexity, of madness and dreams, like the lives of all men who do not wish to delude themselves any longer.
I don’t remember what time I fell asleep, or if at any time I was completely asleep at all. I remember the night sky becoming paler along the eastern horizon, and then the early sun igniting the contours of hills inside the gorge below me—the deep channel of a desert river. My last memory before that, was the intoxicating rain-soaked air, thick with the smells of a wet desert; standing in the midst of a storm under a perfectly clear opening in the night sky just large enough for the near-full moon’s light to illuminate the land for miles in every direction, and to see with absolute clarity a couple of familiar constellations and the edges of clouds. I remember the surprise of feeling dry, a pleasant breeze on my skin, surrounded by menacing storm cells in every direction. I remember thunder and flashes of lightning, seemingly just a few miles away, revealing veils of rain descending from the sky, an instant at a time… countless times.
I don’t remember much else because my conscious faculties were consumed completely, leaving no room for anything beyond futile attempts to assimilate as much as I could of the intense saturation of my senses. I do remember almost viscerally the feeling of absolute, rapturous, peace—the feeling that this is all there is and all that matters.
In times like these, it’s not about “being in nature”; it’s about nature being in you, reminding you that you are an animal in the wild, that you have certain senses, emotions, instincts, and perceptions evolved in the course of billions of years, exactly to appreciate and to respond to experiences like this.
In June, 1934, artist Everett Ruess wrote to a friend, “I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live more intensely and richly. Why muck and conceal one’s true longings and loves, when by speaking of them one might find someone to understand them, and by acting on them one might discover one’s self?” In November of the same year, Ruess vanished into the desert, never to be heard from again. He was 20 years old.
In February, 2015, neurologist Oliver Sacks, upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, wrote, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” Sacks passed away in August of the same year, at age 82.
It would be odd for me to use the term, “lucky,” to refer to the fortune of learning at a relatively young age those lessons that Ruess and Sacks (and many others) spoke of—the value of living deliberately, richly, intensely. I have far outlived Ruess, and I was never given a time estimate, as Sacks was. But, for reasons entirely different from those that motivated Ruess and Sacks, I also had reason to believe my time as a conscious being may not extend too far into the future. Certainly it may seem utterly absurd for me to consider myself lucky for having experienced such circumstances on more than one occasion. But in a way, I do.
I feel fortunate that, as a perennial misfit, I was not moved in my younger years to lash out at a hopeless and seemingly-meaningless world, but instead realized that hope is a meaningless and needless concept when one learns to comfort oneself with such simple a truism as, “right now is good, and that’s all that matters.”
It is sad that such realizations often ensue from misery, and I wondered often if it has to be so. I have read philosophers and mystics on this matter, and still, I don’t know. But, misery or not, the great (if morbid) fortune of such circumstances is that they eliminate ambiguity about such things as priorities and attitudes. And later, the memory of such times is a powerful motivation to remain true to those priorities and attitudes, which often are daunting.
To feel without inhibition, without cynicism, without jadedness, without the incessant need to find humor, to trivialize, to share, or to otherwise subdue an emotion; to allow unbridled emotion the power and the opportunity to subdue you, is what it takes—at least for me—to not just be alive, but to feel alive.