Rose: This is a time when open spaces beckon
I have written in these pages of the Universal Wisdom at the core of our great faith traditions, shared by all and exclusive to none. I heard a fragment of that wisdom from a Hindu yoga master in a lovely retreat center in the mountains of Western Massachusetts many years ago. I realized immediately that the idea was very special and central to what every mature spirituality has to share. It was that “Grace is received in the chalice of gratitude.” None of our faiths would quarrel with this insight.
The pandemic has made gratitude hard to get in touch with, as our lives have been thrown into chaos and the simplest of pleasures, such as spending time with friends and family, have become so immensely complicated. I suppose a gratitude of comparison is easiest to achieve. We sometimes think, “I have my challenges but at least I’m …” and then we fill in the blank. Maybe we end the sentence with “not unemployed” or “not without resources to live on” or “not yet sick,” or maybe “not feeling well, but still not in the hospital on one of those ventilators.”
Even that last comparison doesn’t end the possibilities for feeling relatively fortunate, since one could certainly be grateful that they had access to a ventilator when they needed one. Many, in Italy and New York, did not. But this must surely be the least worthy of gratitudes since it depends on the sufferings of our neighbors. Much better is a gratitude of abundance that appreciates positive gifts, rather than depending on a distanced sympathy with misfortunes that we, at least in this moment, do not share. One such gift is the happiness of reconnecting with our wide open spaces.
Every morning I drive 10 minutes to the edge of Canyon where I walk for an hour on a truly deserted ranch road. I put a sign on my windshield that says “Just out walking. The car is fine. I’m fine too. No assistance needed.” Before I did this, strangers would turn off the main road at the sight of my car parked up by the barbed wire fence, and want to make sure there wasn’t somebody inside who needed something.
Then off I go. Even one car or bicyclist passing during my hour is quite rare. If I see one coming, I scramble off the road to the fence line and wait for it to approach. I’ve learned then to alternate two gestures in rapid succession. One is my best “I’m OK’ friendly wave and smile. The other is the “please keep moving” motion of a traffic cop clearing the parking lot after the big game. Before I learned the second of these, just about everybody would slow down and want to check out the gray-bearded gent walking with his cane and make sure he is doing all right.
It seems that the COVID virus has put its thumb on the scale, much in favor of rural life over city dwelling. The ability to easily get away from everyone right now, except the hawks and the jackrabbits, is an enormous pleasure. So is breathing real air and seeing ahead over distances that are hard to estimate by eye for lack of reference points. At the risk of breaking my own rule about comparisons, I can’t help thinking what those living in any big city would give to take my solitary morning walk each day.
The joys of city life, such as the infinite variety of restaurants, the endless Saturday night entertainment possibilities, and the myriad of clubs and groups to join and enjoy, have been largely put on hold for now. Even in high school, I appreciated that a New Yorker wanting the company of marimba players, duck pin bowlers, or Jane Austen enthusiasts was quite likely to find such a circle, or, with a little initiative, create one. Today those Austen lovers are probably just starting to get more comfortable with their Zoom meeting after a somewhat awkward start. They can also appeal to a like-minded online community not limited by geography. I “Zoom” with a delightful set of my graduate students every Wednesday, just for 90 minutes of conversation and sharing. Since my Masters of Instructional Design and Technology program is entirely online, this group includes students from locations like California and Michigan. These “out-of-towners” often add valuable insights from their “unTexas” perspectives.
It remains to be seen whether any significant number of city dwellers decide to trade their close-enough-to-read-the-tag-on-your-tee-shirt subway rides for the flower-lined back roads of our less crowded states. There is no getting around the fact that many employment opportunities live in our great cities, and are unlikely to be found where the states have square corners, even in the age of work-at-home. There is also something to be said for experiencing in-person the best the world has to offer in theater, dance, museums, literary gatherings, and professional sports. There is truly nothing like being there, even now that films and recordings of stunning technical quality are available from many of the same world-class arts organizations.
Still, after 12 years in the Panhandle following decades in places like New York, Chicago, and Denver, I feel the best experiences are to be had with the more modest performers in almost every field of interest. The Amarillo Bulls are not the Detroit Red Wings, but they play their hearts out every night, I can always get (and afford) a ticket, I can sit close enough to really see some life-size action, and there is always somebody my age to talk to while I’m munching my intermission cupcake.
And besides, in the sprawling major cities, a person of my modest literary talents would probably not be invited to share his opinions in print for friends and neighbors on frequent Sundays.
Dr. Richard Rose is the program director for instructional design and technology at West Texas A&M University.