Just finished rereading Ernest Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River Part I (1925). I don’t remember the last time I read it (certainly pre-pandemic), but I remember the first – in an English class at American University, led by Kermit Moyer. Every time you read a story it’s different because you’re different, and this one for me changed dramatically this morning.
I have never been through war, but was stuck in a living situation for two years during the pandemic with psychotic neighbors below us (literally, not figuratively, psychotic), an extremely unstable and disconnected landlord living above, along with numerous other negative pieces of the puzzle. Unable to cope with everything, my brain went into complete survival mode, shutting down anything it deemed unnecessary in my body, including digestion. I became gravely ill, looking like a skeleton, and no doctors could give me any answers because Western medicine on the whole is extremely reductionist and can’t see that everything in the body affects everything else in the body.
Here we are number of years later and I’m still struggling with all of these effects. I have had to leave numerous jobs because my body kept failing, but it now seems pretty clear that it was really a failure of my mind to deal with modern society. In Hemingway’s story, his protagonist Nick Adams (a fictional substitute for himself) retreats to the woods where he methodically sets up camp. Reading this as a dumb college kid, I doubt I got much of anything from it and likely said, “But nothing happened.” Now, the great depth of the story is extremely evident and extremely powerful.
Nick has suffered severe trauma and his escape to the woods is an attempt to come to peace with himself through the healing power of nature. In my own search for recovery I have found nature to play a very important part. Last year I randomly picked up a book from the library called The Nature Fix, which pulls together all sorts of studies to show just how important nature is in our mental as well as physical well-being. Some of the results are absolutely astonishing, and when you juxtapose those against how our modern society is geared towards pushing nature further and further away, it’s no wonder so many of us are in the condition that we are in.
I read another book a number of years ago now, (sorry to say I can’t remove the name if it sounds familiar please put the title in the comments below), which broke down the inability to be completely immersed in nature within the United States. By this I mean it showed that there was essentially no where you could go in this country to be untouched by humans or human sounds, such as airplanes flying above. I go to the forest preserves here outside of Chicago, and they are beautiful, but every single time I hear human created noise it pulls me out and I feel my body tense. We’re rushing forward but no one seems to really know why. I think for many of us it is because when we slow down we have to be with ourselves and see all the things that we don’t want to see.
But this blog is supposed to be about writing, right? Well, these are all things that I think about often, but they really coalesced nicely in Hemingway’s story. We need more nature, we need more simplicity, we need more meditative acts such as the great care that Nick takes in setting up his campsite. All of his actions are incredibly mindful and in the present moment, something Buddhism has shown to be extremely important for healing for thousands of years, and which modern science has confirmed over and over again.
Writing, to me, is a meditative act. I can’t do it in a coffee house or anywhere else where I don’t feel like I have complete control of my surroundings. Modern life has instilled in me a hypervigilance that I’m finding incredibly difficult to distance myself from. What terrors we’ve wrought upon our minds (souls) through our endless, mindless rush to do more, more, more. And for what? To fill that emptiness within us which can only be filled when we slow down. Let’s slow down today.