It’s 104 degrees in Sacramento and almost that in the gold-rush foothills where my folks live. I’ve dutifully come 600 miles to visit them but I’ve escaped, briefly, to the cool mountains above. I’ve settled into the duffy shade of a huge mountain hemlock, the sweat of a perfect dayhike is cooling me, and a snow cornice gleams above a silver-dollar lake set deep in its talused cirque.
I love this. The High Sierra.
I loved it in detail, over years of exploring, before I abandoned the sins and automotive savageries of California for the cool green urbanisms of Portland.
In my hand is a book of poetry — Stephen Dunn’s — and I’m about to enter a long, savoring poem listing his "Loves." In detail. Things and people and ... How much he loves! And with what precision and determination: The ocean in winter. Shifting from second to third.
I love the carpenter bees
in spring, mating in air, and I don’t mind
the holes they make in my house ...
I love the way sorrow and lust
can be companions. I love the logic
of oxymorons, and how paradox helps us
not to feel insane.
I guess it’s a kind of epicure’s trick, to save a book like this for a moment like this. But it works for me, helps lift me from the pettiness of my familial disapprovals and frictions. You know what I mean: the morbid power a loved one’s ill-concealed faults can exert over you. In my family (as in yours, I bet) there is racism and fundamentalism and bigotry — smug, impervious to evidence, infuriating. I’m the gay son come home to make nice for a few days. Each night I call my partner — whose name is never uttered here — to try to draw strength from the thin stream of voice in the earpiece.
I hiked up here today across glacier-slick granite a-dance with streams and melts and trickles under that famous sharp and somehow divinizing light. Pines limber and lodgepole are gardened into it, a bonsai wide as the world, with tiniest greens of grass and flower lipping the pools and tumbles. I loved this, and I came here to love it again. But instead, for half the journey, I have been rehearsing the unspoken arguments that muddy up my heart: making the iron-clad Q.E.D. for global warming (yes it’s real!), for diversity and inclusion, for a bigger god...
We are all, too much of the time, captives of the wreck and the mistake. Can’t take our eyes off it, can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop picking that scab. We slide into our merely negative identity — defined by what we refuse.
But it’s not enough, is it? Is our nation adrift, hijacked by mountebanks and neocons and thugs? It is not enough to hate them. We must remember what we love. Time spent saying no is, at some point, time robbed from the yes that must follow. A long time ago I read Jesus’ words "Do not resist evil" and wondered what in the world he could have meant. Maybe this: We must stand on what we love — live it, be it and bring it. And not waste time in the other direction, preaching up devil and denunciation. In mere reaction we become impotent and diminished — as I know well. It’s no place to live.
A bit tired and a lot refreshed, I return toward evening and find a meal set specially for me, of pork chops seethed in sweet apples and onions. A hundred-dollar-bill is tucked in at my place, to help with the trip. So wrong on the macro, on the micro these are good and loving folks. What can I do but love them back?
There’s a random dangerous rightness abroad in this wide shining world. It’s a rightness, not a correctness. We don’t need so much to counter other people’s errors as to bring the light and joy of that right and beautiful world: what we desire for our planet and ourselves, what we are doing instead of hating and denying and bombing.
If I live to be my parents’ age, I’ll have three more decades to help Portland develop its answers: how we’ll live in a warming world without cheap oil. Will it be a good life in 2036? Every day, in my adopted hometown, we struggle and argue, build and make choices toward a yes — one that might someday be useful all over our swaggering, sweltering, beloved land.
Our job is to work on what we love. Daily. In detail. With precision and determination.
David Oates is the author of City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.