September 17, 2013

HUDSON: Ghostbusting, Sans Proton Pack

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By MATT HUDSON

Recently, a cobra made its home at the foot of my bed. Jagged light crashes through the blinds at sunrise, striping the walls in shadow and warming him, coiled there to the left of my feet as I yawn myself awake. An endless moment; I taste salt and panic from flash floods of imaginary sweat, but the snake doesn’t move. Tongue flickers. My reflection blinks out of its onyx eyes, and we stare at each other for a long time before I realize, as I do every morning, that I am no longer afraid of the future.

It is late July. By an open window in a Spanish beer garden, a schoolteacher from Belfast leans over an upholstered armchair and whispers something in my ear. I can barely hear; the stone pathways are vibrant with festival parades and walking sticks, but it is enough. “We think too much, Matt, and so we’re lonely. Worry is a hungry ghost, and we give it bones and skin by looking up, by shrinking from the road … by hiding in ourselves.” In the fresh memory of crossing a 200-mile stretch of shadeless desert together, I could hardly ignore the weight of her words.

The snake evaporates with the morning mist, and I pour my coffee into a white ceramic mug.

Tomorrow is a terrifying thought, isn’t it? Whatever follows now, whether it is a new morning or the post-university world’s cold reception, is unknown and unfamiliar. Tomorrow is a pair of dice tumbling in the hand of chaos, and in our great fear of uncertainty we knit together a sort of weak structure, a patchwork attempt at order. That effort is the weekly schedule, the plan; it’s the long-term goal. But what happens when fixation on those distant points turns to worry, as it likely will? From somewhere, a cobra strikes. Limbs paralyzed and coursing with venom, our eyes close and our heads fall back into our pillows, transfixed in the icy stare of Scrooge’s “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.” Often, our most grave error is nothing more than a frozen, anxious gaze into the future. How human, that we can photograph galaxies but hardly see where our feet will land!

Here, imagine: Looking ahead from the base of a mountain trail, conifers and sprouting ferns strangled by thorny brush swallow the scenery, save for two points: the snaking path and the faraway peak, some three days away. The way is rocky and dangerous, with ragged fog disguising dips and fissures among the decaying leaves, ground torn apart by overgrown roots. It’s hard not to keep glancing up at where the trail disappears into the trees, so you often do, in spite of the soft drizzle dangerously slicking rocks underfoot. Little seems to change, not even the clips of occasional birdsong, so your mind wanders ahead. You worry about having enough food, about finding a clearing to gauge the day’s progress and pitch your tent before nightfall, about hydrating and shaking small stones from your muddy boots. With every distracted thought of the future, your mind slips further and further from the immediate path, and the small rift hidden in the brown oak leaves ahead goes unnoticed until the pain shooting through your ankle tells you the climb is over. If only you hadn’t gone alone …

Can you hear the pine needles, shaken from branches at the edge of the rain? That is enough on its own. The peak will wait for you; mountains are well known for staying put. Rather than holing up in asylums of worry, trust that you’ll know the path when you see it. Follow it with your feet, not any forward-charging, anxious desire for a destination.

Somewhere in Poland, Ryszard Krynicki found the voice to pen one of the most tragic, beautiful single-phrase poems I know. Why is it, I wonder, that destruction looks so attractive? Maybe it’s a choice. I Can’t Help You:

Poor moth, I can’t help you,

I can only turn out the light.

What little advice I can offer, with Krynicki’s guidance, is this: Don’t look too far into the flame, little moth. The only salvation left, then, is losing the future. There may be a cobra poised to strike at the foot of your bed, but get up anyway. Worry is only a ghost, a haunting mental bed sheet, so please; don’t give it bones and skin. Just drink coffee, take today’s steps, and tomorrow’s will follow as they always have.

Matt Hudson is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mhudson@cornellsun.com. Red in the Face runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.