by R. Scott Porter
(Swans - February 9, 2009) Pondering the state of the world recently brought to mind a chance encounter I had over thirty years ago. It was sometime around 1975. I had just spent nearly a year wandering around Hawaii, working at odd jobs, surfing, doing some drawing and painting, writing some poems. Upon returning to the mainland I decided to visit a college buddy who had moved up to Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. There I found work and rented a little cabin for the winter.
Winter hit with a vengeance that year, as it often does. At one point I recall someone telling me that it was 100 degrees below zero, with the wind chill factor. The wind blew at nearly 100 miles per hour. The snow fell sideways in a total "white-out." I did not dispute those facts at the time, although, in retrospect it would seem to be an exaggeration. All I can tell you is it was crazy cold! There were soon ten to fifteen foot snow drifts and most cars were buried, some until spring. Then it became evident that the best way to get around was cross-country skiing. We skied around town to provide the essentials and soon took to longer excursions into the wilderness. We would climb up as far as our young legs could take us, and then ski back home. It was during one of those treks that we chanced upon a fellow who left a lasting impression on me. We came upon him out of the blue. We smelled smoke, and then found his cabin, in the middle of nowhere. We knocked on the door and immediately gained entrance.
The inhabitant of this priceless retreat seemed glad to see someone. Few had ventured that far into the wilderness, especially in the dead of winter, to discover him in his solitude. No one had knocked on his door for a very long time. His hair was long and his beard was longer. He was dressed in the most utilitarian way. I do not know the history of the "cabin." It may well have been a trapper's cabin dating back to the nineteenth, or even the eighteenth century. It had that feel. It was a log cabin, very low to the ground. There was a wood burning stove, of some ancient provenance, commanding a single room with a dirt floor, jammed with everything a hermit would cherish, firewood in abundance, food in evidence, books piled in stacks. He was obviously there for the long term, intent on study, meditation, and survival. He immediately offered us tea and sat us down in front of the fire. The cabin was cozy, with that campfire scent. There was no pretense, no questioning of motive, no problem. He welcomed us as if we were family, and in a sense we were, because we had somehow found our way to that place.
We talked for hours about our lives. He had gone to college, learned a bit too much for his liking about the human race and its seemingly intractable foibles, and decided to escape. I had simply not had the slightest notion of what I wanted to do with my life, and so I had escaped in order to find myself. He talked of the insanity of war and the emptiness of greed. I sat and gained knowledge for as long as we stayed in that place. There would be other times, even to this day, when new truths became evident to me, and yet that one still seems special. I never got his name. It wasn't important at the time. I don't know what became of him, and I prefer the mystery. I only know that he lives on in my memory. In those fleeting moments he left a lasting impression on at least one other person. We should all aspire to that.
Then, my eyes were opened to a wider world, by a hermit, surviving in an ancient cabin, in a remote wilderness, in the dead of winter. His self-imposed isolation was unsettling to one who enjoyed the company of others, and yet, deep down, I respected his effort. Since then I have known that there is something to learn from everyone. We all have our own unique story. We are all both positive and negative examples to each other. There is something right in each of us, and because we are only human, there is also something wrong.
Now, so many years later, precious little has changed. The constant battle between "good" and "evil" still rages, only with more participants and even more deadly toys. We still spend our money on war instead of education. Too many still refuse to learn the lessons of history and continue to go to battle with each other, caused by their incessant greed, or the petty differences of superstitious religions, and we still wonder why nothing ever seems to change. If we could all learn to listen, at least as well as we talk, that would be a real, positive change.
So, to bring all this back to the state of the world, there will always be something to be learned, either positive or negative, from listening to other points of view. President Obama seems to be on the right course, in this regard, in complete contrast to the policies of the former administration. Here, at the beginning, at least, he has shown a willingness to listen to others. That simple act of inclusion sets a tone that has been missing for the last eight years. This is a hopeful sign. With a thoughtful leader in the highest office we may well be on our way to regaining some national sanity. Time will tell.
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