Ambler, No. 22 [On the Transitory Nature of Man, With a Poem Addressed to Adam the Scribe, On Account of His Tardiness]
Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies and the mortall right-lined circle, must conclude and shut up all. -- Sir Thomas Browne
Roughly one year ago I was traveling by automobile in the city when I came across another car with a bumper sticker which read something to the effect of “We are not earthly beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having an earthly experience.” Whether or not the theology of the statement is true, it had a profound effect upon me, and I confess to agree with it in part. Man, though very earthy, is spiritual, and he spends the majority of his days, whether he acknowledges it or not, feeling as if he is not entirely home. Even the unique soul that has spent the majority of his lifetime in one geographical location wrestles with the peculiar longing for a more permanent lodging, and those physically transitory souls on earth are necessarily aware of their lack of permanence as they are reminded of this truth with every move. For the body of man is but a tent, settled but for a moment until the elements of nature have so battered and bewildered it, that it remains no more and must be replaced with a more secure structure.
A recent evening afforded me the opportunity to sit outside the Ole Midshipman and have a pipe. Now, anyone who has ever tried to smoke a pipe is aware of the difficulties one has in keeping the thing lit. As a very novice pipe smoker, I go through roughly fifteen matches before it decides to cooperate, and every time I curse myself for not properly packing it - an art in itself. Thus, I hold that pipe smoking should be a relatively private affair in which not much else is being tended to but the bowl. It is best to smoke amongst friends who are also smoking and who delight in good-natured conversation. The second best way to smoke a pipe is to do so in complete solitude with only the bowl and the brain working on all cylinders.
It is in this state which I smoked. The night was cool and the sun had just gone to bed. After what was probably the thirteenth or fourteenth match, I finally hit my stride, and through the billowy smoke proceeding from my mouth, I gazed upwards at the heavens. It was a clear night which meant that, despite modern pollution, a few stars could be seen, and I specifically noted the handle of the big dipper and the north star --that ever-fixèd star that remains entirely constant. As I was gazing I perceived one of those stars begin to move westward, for it was no star at all, but a plane. I wondered to myself where it could be going and where it had originated. It struck me that the plane could possibly be traveling from any number of distances and that man has so greatly advanced that both time and space are with each passing decade becoming less relevant.
Moments later a much larger plane entered the ether, reinforcing my earlier belief that the first plane came from some distant land. The pipe in my hand was at full throttle -- smoke billowed from from the bowl and poured forth from my mouth as if I were a dragon in long cloudy lines, lasting for a good ten seconds. The mouth from which that smoke came grew warmer, and the mind reposed into deeper thoughtfulness.
It is true that man, at the end of his day, is a very restless being, moving to and fro, never fully satisfied with his geographical positioning on the globe. The night grew darker; the stars shone a bit brighter; my thoughts turned inward in reflection. I began to muse on where I had been a year prior to this date -- likely I had been out on an evening stroll or sitting out in my backyard, observing the same nightly ritual I was currently undertaking. In any case, it was all too true that I was miles from my current place of residence, in another city entirely.
Those transitory souls that haunt this globe -- moving from city to city and unable to settle down -- have a few common qualities. In a negative sense, we look down on those stationary souls who have never traveled the globe, let alone moved their residence, as if choosing to invest in one’s town, city, or state was morally questionable, as if the world traveler experienced in lands in he will never invest it, is thus superior to the man who knows his town better than Timbuktu.
The world traveler, though, does have a leg up on the man who has never been anywhere. I once knew a young man who rarely left our county. In fact, he had left his state but once in his life and happened to only because the city he was visiting happened to be on the border. There is both a quaintness and a sadness to this story. For though my friend possessed a thorough knowledge of, and a healthy respect for, his county, he suffered from the narrow-mindedness that may keep one from properly understanding outsiders. And thus while the negative quality of the traveler is one of vanity and pride, a nuisance to lifers and townies, a worse quality arises from the transitory being.
For those who spend so little time in one city develop the much worse habit of physically residing in one town while mentally, and therefore spiritually, residing in another. So as I smoked my pipe and reflected on where I had been but one year prior, I thought more deeply about where I would be in one year. As the past fourteen years of my life have roughly been on a two-year cycle, in which every two years a new town is introduced, it happens that more time is spent musing on where I will be next than where I am presently. And the habit has become so normal that slowly distancing myself is but second nature. I am unaware if this is peculiar to my own capricious whims or if other transitories out there are familiar with the symptom.¹ What I do know is that though it is a negative quality, engendered by my constantly moving, I am not so sure I am willing to give up my transitory nature. It is good for a man to invest in a town or city.
There is nevertheless a certain sense of adventure in moving to a new town which never entirely grows stale unless one allows it to. The adventure would have been more tangible fifty years ago, when towns differed in more ways that mere size and scenery. In this I find that oddly the fear in life comes not from constant up-rootings, not from hopping from house to house, but from staying put. It is far easier to invest little in your neighbor when you know he will only be a neighbor for a relatively short period of time. And the fear comes not in feeling out of place in a new town, for we often feel very much at home in a strange town. But the fear comes in feeling out of place in your own home: In commitment. In such things as marriage or parenthood. For the gypsy can leave without a second thought, but the mayor must stay for better or for worse. And the tragedy arises when the mayor begins mentally residing in some far off land. Thus whether man grows stale and stagnant in the town he was born and raised; whether he is merely passing through, he ought to embrace where he presently is, and should not be like so many millennials on Facebook and Twitter, forever fastened to their phones, eternally elsewhere.
Sam Snow, theficklefarce.com
Written over a period of days,
August 13, 16, and 17, 2014
Transcribed by Adam the Scribe
A day late,
August 19, 2014
Painting: "A Peasant Filling His Pipe"
By Adriaen van Ostade
Oil on Panel, 1660-1669
¹Word courtesy of Adam the Scribe
“To Adam, On Account of His Tardiness”
As fruitful lands, yet have barren spots,
Your work, though good, sometimes does blot
the page and your good name,
which , in time, will acquire such fame
Birds fly here and there, and everywhere,
No sense of time do those beasts share.
Yet every spring and fall will surely prove,
Their timely arrivals they will not move.
August 18, 2014
Transcribed by Adam the Scribe,
August 19, 2014