Horizontal Happiness: Laying Down Arms; Floating in Possibility
Saturday, July 23, 2016
“On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my father, my mother, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they all are, on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. . .” (From James Agee’s A Death in the Family)
I remember my own childhood, summers in Martha’s Vineyard, for a whole month. My mother kept the hearth and my father worked weeks in Boston, coming in for the weekends, and finally for a whole week at the end of August. The world seemed safer then and my younger brother and sisters and I often fended for ourselves, walking the dusty road into the small town and pier of Menemsha. The house we rented had a big back yard that sloped down to a grassy marsh. Sometimes at night, the three oldest of us dragged our heavy, old fashioned sleeping bags down to the bottom of the yard, as far away from the house as we could get.
Without a mosquito net, a tent, or even a tarp, we lay down and looked up at the night sky, the colors bleeding into star dark. We saw shooting stars, their movement across a swath of sky hypnotic, exciting, and scary at the same time—their falling an abdominal tug. We talked and giggled, and claimed authority: “See? See that one? Wow. That one I saw is the best so far!” Like a fireworks display just for us, our parents inside, trusting us to the backyard, the night and the stars. So what that we awakened in soaking sleeping bags with mosquito bites; that we walked barefoot over dewy grass, grains of sand sticking to our feet and to the sodden sleeping bags. We had come back to our temporary home with its vaulted ceilings and wide planked floors as if from a foreign, and marvelous country.
Horizontality: lying down in the grass, or on a hammock or a bed or sand or a warm flat rock provides a contemplative surface. More than that, an appreciative one. Lying down, we have stopped moving across terrain. Instead, our minds move, our hearts move; we take time to notice the support of what lies below us and the loft above. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” (From Nature and Selected Essays on Goodreads website)
When we come to an impasse while trying to solve a problem, whether creative or practical, taking time out in the shower or lying on a bed of grass, often opens our minds and in that expansiveness the answers swim to the surface, welcoming us with big smiles. Or we lie down to simply be. To stop doing. To let our minds and bodies rest from their restless agitation. “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” So says John Lubbock from The Use of Life (Goodreads website)
Most of our lives we travel on surfaces. You live and work somewhere on the topography we all share, called the earth. To get to you or you to me, we traverse mountains, oceans, flatlands. We travel, we explore; we cover ground. Most of our trajectories move from horizon to horizon. Space travel opens limitless potential, and without gravity, no ups and downs, no side to sides anchor us in space. Distances between celestial bodies have length, but length in space does not have a tether to horizontality as length does on terra firma.
Our bodies, born to run, born to the canoe, move along horizontally. We leap and jump for joy or vault our bodies into heights we can achieve with a bendable pole or on an airplane, but our physical bodies are grounded. We are earthlings. No wonder we dream in horizontal terms; we hope in horizontal terms. Around the bend in the river, or over the next peak, or in the new city, our lives will offer new opportunities or will improve in some way. Who has not had a ‘the grass is greener across the fence’ moment?
Horizontality is about rest and recovery, sleep, dreaming, closing one’s eyes and reducing external stimulation, being off the clock, stretching out, calming the nervous system, gazing at the sky.
Being low down, we associated naturally with humility and kindness, with rest and with ease. A little girl, viewed nearly ten million times, on Facebook, lets her mother know she must come down (from her high horse) in order to get along with her father. Mother is too high, and must occupy a lower spot in the vertical plane. She tells the mother she does not have to get too low, just low enough to equalize things.
his little girl possesses an instinctive understanding that we use our verticality, our uprightness, in ways that can intimidate others. That we naturally live in horizontality. Whatever has gravity, figuratively as well as literally, grounds us. Frank Lloyd Wright believed his architectural designs must incorporate that idea: “Wherever human life is concerned, the unnatural stricture of verticality cannot stand against more natural horizontality.”
Intellectual breadth/horizontality and depth both hold importance. Perhaps they conflate at some point. The more deeply one masters and understands something, the more details unfold. The pro-generative nature of details produces a breadth of knowledge, and a deep thinker has the ability to find the connective tissue between the ideas. In part, “our joy in life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” Christopher McCandless (Brainyquote.com)
Horizontality has much to do with those persons, objects, and environments within our sight. When we have vision we can often see afar and imagine or predict what will come. When accused of myopia, we can only see what stands right in front of us, and perhaps need to cultivate more of a distance view.
Interpersonally, horizontality is the plane of hugs and also of exclusion, of opening one’s arms to receive sun, air and the great feeling of stretching one’s arms out wide. In horizontality we receive and cradle, carry someone or something close to the body. We gaze across a mind expanse into someone’s eyes; enjoy intimacy with another person.
“Intimacy is not a happy medium. It is a way of being in which the tension between distance and closeness is dissolved and a new horizon appears.” Henri Nouwen (from brainyquote.com)
But a tug at the heartstrings also energizes the horizontal plane, the plane of goodbyes. All leaving-takings, even though not personal, feel somewhat sad to me, like the aching of an elongating distance. The renters behind my cottage just left for their home. We had but one friendly conversation. They swam and walked here, kayaked, cooked, drank, slept. Enjoyed. Loved. Decompressed. But now, dust flagging their departure down the gravel road, I feel the twinge of loss. As they move farther from me, I feel my aloneness more, and my aloneness contains within it the seeds of peace, the seeds of silence, and, were I to stay here many days, the seeds of loneliness. Horizontality offers us a release from the collective busyness of our world but also distances we long to cross for the embrace of those we love.
Horizontality and distance go hand in hand as concepts. Our constant dance as couples, friends, and coworkers, regulate the distances between ourselves and others. We say we are close to someone, or we feel distant. But the dance of closeness and distance, of how close together and how far apart we think of ourselves from others reinforces our narrative about those bonds: Do we feel reinforced enough with those bonds or do they feel close to snapping.
We use language like, “I feel connected to you.” Or, sadly, “I don’t feel connected to you anymore. Our bond has broken.” We enjoy the near and dear and often miss the dear who live far away. In the horizontal plane we can enfold and gaze. Interesting, the impact of Skype and Facetime because real horizontal distance collapses as we face a two dimensional screen and in real time the images of our loved ones appear before us. We can gaze. We can share stories. But even then, some visceral and kinesthetic sense of longing remains, because true closeness wears flesh. True closeness shares a horizon. Love is at the center of that universe; it’s the place we call home.
Guest Saddle: What is on the horizon toward which you are traveling? Do you have too much distance between you and someone you love? Or not enough? What do you see or dream or wish for when you lie down at night? What does life feel like for you when you stop walking, running, driving, driving, driving?