Monday, May 16, 2011

Porous (Or, Why my Tiny, Not-finished House is Just Fine)

I’ve been re-reading Gary Snyder’s collection of essays, A Place in Space, of late. It’s a book I bought at nineteen while living in my grandparents’ carport in the heart of Tucson. The floor of that carport was dirt and the walls made of ocotillo fence through which I could see, on one side, an alley lined with crumbling adobes and on the other, my grandparents’ scrub yard. I set up a tent, a rug, and a Coleman stove and woke at dawn each morning to the sound of the neighborhood dogs barking and mourning doves singing and the smell of the Chinese food wafting in from the house next door. I would step out of my tent, make a cup of black coffee, and climb up onto my grandparents’ roof to watch the sun blaze pink across the Santa Catalina Mountains north of town.

I had left my Ivy League college that spring, without plans of returning. My dorm there didn’t suit me: a square room with navy carpet and a couple of bunk beds on the second story of a large concrete building with blasting radiators and stiff windows. I wanted, desperately, to know where my heat came from and where the shit I flushed down the toilet escaped to and I wanted a landscape I could make contact with, intimately. Neither did the classes suit me; they were intently focused on what I considered to be arcane and inconsequential knowledge: narrow visioned close readings, intertextual referencing, historical name tagging. I can see the benefit (joy, meaning, significance) in all of that now, but at nineteen I was after a bigger question: How does one live a good life? And so I left Brown for a carport in a city in the desert.

And found: Gary Snyder. In his essay, “The Porous World” Snyder writes: “One can choose to live in a place as a sort of visitor, or try to become an inhabitant.” I spent that spring working for a potter in the mornings and, in the afternoons, driving my grandmother’s 1978 Toyota Corolla (a car I will perennially love) to the foothills, taking off my shoes, and walking barefoot up into the mountains. I never brought much with me: a water bottle and, if I remembered, sunscreen. One day I took a long hike: six hours or so, with just a few scraps of food, climbing up out of the desert (saguaros, ocotillos, and palo verdes) into the higher manzanita plateaus, then circling east until I found another trail leading back down again.

Snyder goes on to say that he and his family set out to live a “porous and permeable” life amidst the hills, without screens or fences or dogs to keep out deer, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, mud-daubers or mice, and that by doing so they found an intimate knowledge of place and self that took on both ecological and spiritual dimensions. My bare feet were an attempt, similarly, to perforate the boundaries between the landscape and myself, to become an inhabitant of a place, to build a true relationship with the non-human world around me. I thought often of scorpions and rattlesnakes and the mountain lions that populate those mountains and how, if I came across one, it would be a lesson in many things. Humility, for one. The need to learn a new language of forgiveness and reckoning, for another.

At the end of that spring I moved home, and that next fall went back to college, where I decided to study religion, the only place where that perennial question—how does one live a good life—seemed to come into play. I studied Buddhism, and Christian mysticism, and moved off campus into an apartment in a Portuguese neighborhood where the smell of the downstairs neighbors’ cooking chicken wafted through the cracks in the floor and the windows were drafty and pigeons cooed on the rooftops.

I stopped, at some point after that, reading Gary Snyder, and after college, stopped even thinking much about Buddhism or the mysticism I’d studied. But returning to his essays at thirty-three is like returning to a home I didn’t remember leaving. I haven’t stopped thinking about the subject matter, or asking the questions, I’d merely forgotten the language. The porous and permeable is something I think about obsessively regarding the literature that moves me, the music I aspire to make, and yes, the spaces I inhabit. It’s why I don’t particularly like screened porches or raised decks or garages; it is why I’ve needed a fire-escape in every city apartment I’ve lived in; it is why I love French doors and open-air patios and houses built close to the ground; it is why I like minimal square-footage (forcing you to make the yard an extension of your living room), and trailers, and RV parks and tents.

As Snyder writes, porousness is a reflection of the Buddhist philosophy of interconnection, which is the one thing I walked away from college believing in: that happiness comes from dissolving the boundaries between the self and the world outside the self. The Buddhists aren’t the only ones: Willa Cather wrote, “That is happiness, to dissolved into something complete and great.” Leonard Cohen sang, “The cracks are where the light gets in.” And the mystics of pretty much any world tradition would agree. How does one live a good life? There are a million answers, but living a porous, permeable lifestyle is a decent start. Open doors, bare feet, open minds, open windows, untrustworthy cars (that could deposit you, empty handed, in any given place), forgiveness, small houses. You and it and that are me and I am you. This reengagement with the language of inhabitance makes me proud of that circuitous, confused route I took in college—that need to answer some vague and un-discussed question—and makes me see how that young quest led me here: to this small, earth-nestled, French-door infested drafty house in the woods, a place where my aesthetics, politics, ethics and spirituality are so wholly (yet full of holes) fused.