Rain and mist. My little mountain town looks as if it should be situated on a loch in Scotland. All we need is a castle and some heather. Instead we have high mountains we can’t see today, lots of pines, budding aspen and the start of a summer of wildflowers, small darting creatures and lots of elk. Here’s a picture of a sleek gentleman in velvet wading in one of Estes Park‘s rivers on a sunnier day. The picture is courtesy of Roxy Whalley, and many more of her wonderful photographs can be found at Images By Roxy and A Picture A Day 2012. Right now, and of course I can’t remember what I did with my camera, there are a number of elk lying down in the wet grass across the street, only their ears and growing antlers visible to me. Sometimes I need to remember and express my gratitude for being able to live here, because it is a gift.
On such a rainy Sunday, while feeling grateful for my blessings and sending up (around? through? wherever!) my thanks to the Author, I’m reminded that among those blessings and thanks are the choices I am given to make and the results of the choices I have made. Sometimes, I think we all–I know I do–can feel coerced into the lives we’re living, caught somehow by circumstance or fate or some kind of determinism. Why am I here? We ask this, and we’re not (as the joke would have it) trying to figure out why we’re standing in the laundry room (in this joke, we’re looking for our glasses). But of course, what we’re really looking for is either purpose or at least an explanation.
There are many sources from religions to philosophies to governments to mothers to science to (probably the wisest) comedians to tell us what our purpose is, explaining why we’re here. We all know what they are and each of us has already or needs soon to come to terms with how much those explanations personally resonate. But in a (very) superficial survey, I would state that reasons given for the existence and ultimate purpose of human beings, of life on this planet, of this planet’s own existence, of the existence of the universe, range from (a) utter determinism and predestination to (z) (or maybe zzzzzzz) mere chance. Somewhere in the middle of that vast spectrum you will find my own microscopic dot, I’m sure.
But today, I keep thinking that for every situation, place, mess, glory or whatnot in which I’ve been plopped down, there is a spectrum ranging between a deterministic explanation and a free will expanation. For example, why did I move back to Estes Park after a life in Los Angeles and New York City? Why Estes Park? Well, my mother and I moved here after my father died because they had stored their furniture in Colorado, Daddy had loved it here, and Mama found a house for cheaper rent in Estes Park than she could in all the front range towns (then, they’re small cities now). How to parse that decision in terms of Choice, of Chance, of Determinism? The Universe or God providing a path? There is no real way to know. Mama was too much under the survival and grief gun to ponder any of that. She just wanted a roof, a job and a safe place for herself and her (sullen and hopefully temporarily unhappy) daughter. So by default Estes Park became home, the place I knew, the refuge when things went bad, the place to escape from when the rest of the world (any part of it) looked better than a mountain valley with few jobs and no prospects. No matter how beautiful it was.
But it isn’t just that Estes was and is home and I’ve always been homesick for the mountains. True, when things went bad in my life (which happened a lot, but then that happens a lot to everybody), I’d think about Estes Park as home and want to go there to lick my wounds. When things got better (which doesn’t inevitably happen for anybody, but which does take place more often than we notice, I think), Estes Park would once again become a nice place to visit. Then, due to a weird confluence of strange events, I got older. And due to an even weirder confluence of even stranger events, while I didn’t get rich, or even “comfortable”, as they say, I did manage to inherit, work for and save (saving being, alas, the least of it) enough not to fret over job prospects in a small mountain town. Because while Estes Park is a hard place to live when you have to earn a living, if you can retire there on even a semi-pittance, Estes Park is a lovely place to live, filled with beauty, friends and important things to do. So it became a choice once more open to me both in practical and in emotional terms.
But there were other forces. Chance? Determinism? I don’t know. When I moved to New York City, that choice was mine, but it was influenced by events in my life in Los Angeles that could very well be the universe nudging me toward a specific outcome, or which could have been pure chance onto which I imposed some kind of meaning. This, by the way is a very old human sport, engaged in because our brains are hard-wired to form patterns. Scientists believe that this wiring came about to allow us to pick out the pretty fruit against the background of green leaves. But now, the pattern-formation wiring in our heads also will form patterns of behavior, of activities in the world, in an attempt to find the fruit of meaning against the background of noise. In any event, the patterns I saw I interpreted in terms of the choice I wanted to make and I moved to New York City.
And loved it. And would be there still were it not for some new patterns forming against the noise. Patterns of economic disaster for all, physical problems for me, and the combination of isolation and loneliness these patterns (and some iffy choices on my part) created. (Friends in Manhattan moved to Jersey, I stopped working because of my health, my health kept me at home in my Bronx coop which was very far from anywhere I wanted to be, etc., etc., etc.) And I gradually came to the realization that I could no longer be there in my coop in the Bronx. Since Manhattan was financially out of the question, where was I to be? And was it simply my choice to stick a pin in a map? Or was there a pattern?
Chance? Determinism? Choice?
Looking back makes it a lot easier to see the combinations. While we’re in a situation, it is very hard to distinguish what parts of the decisions we make are free choice, reaction to random chance, or possibly the influence and caring of a superior entity. Do I see the pretty fruit because it just happens to be there? Or do the patterns in the foliage lead me to it? Or whether it is all noise and background and I’m making up the pretty fruit I was trying to find.
But I came home, using as much single-minded effort to do so that I had used to move to New York. And while I still miss Manhattan, I am glad I did. Here is a very good place. Whether I’m supposed to be here because some Force in the universe wills it and I am merely a pawn being moved, or whether I’m here because I am as much a maker of my life patterns as I am the one who discerns them, or whether I’m here purely out of rational choice and completely by chance, I don’t yet know. Perhaps it is some unique combination of them all.
Right now, I’m not on the downward spiral of a bad decision or a bad place where I’m hunting desperately for someone, something, more wise and powerful than I am, to tell me what to do and assure me that it will all come out all right. On the other hand, I kind of miss those times in my life when my desire for an outcome, my determination to make something happen, would overcome all chance, all determinism in the world. All gates were open, all systems were go, all circumstances in the world seemed to coalesce, serendipitously, into a green light which would sustain me until the project was complete, or close enough to complete so that clenching my teeth and soldiering on would make it so.
Today, I’m pondering my choices and my chances. Oddly, like the elk in the stream in Roxy’s picture. That elk is there because the original species indigenous to Estes Park was wiped out in hunting and another species was brought down from Wyoming to repopulate the National Park. So, to what extent can we look at this particular elk and see the determinism of the universe and of human beings to place his kind in Estes Park? To what extent does that particular elk’s individual health and luck (the chance of his life) play a part in our seeing him in that river at that time and place and date? And to what extent is he in that river because he just thought, what the hell, it’s easier to drink the water if I’m already in it? Determinism. Chance. Choice.
What brand-new combination will come to me next, as it does to that elk? What will move me on, whether metaphorically or (less likely at this point) actually to another place, another goal, another purpose. While I came back to this beautiful place, this genuine home, to retire, to be still, to do small things and perhaps finally do them a bit better, and I hope that continues, it seems I’m not done with dreaming or hoping, either. Or wondering if the Author, as I mentioned above, just might have something more for me to do and in just what way that will manifest to me. As a choice? As a chance? As a destiny?
Meanwhile, on this rainy Sunday, I plan to make a small destiny of looking outside at the lovely misty mountains, feel the stroke of the rain on my skin, see if the elk have (entirely their choice, I hope) left the meadow below the road to find some other place to bed down this night, and open myself to patterns, to the fruit against the leaves, the intricate winding dance of chance and choice and determinism, and see what that dance creates for me next.