The Road to Riches

In the coal-veined ankles of Appalachia, where the wrinkled hollows drop into dammed lakes filled with the ghosts of flooded villages, we drove along a road that curves 318 times in 11 miles. We filled water jugs at natural springs, and walked past mirror-mazes and arcades wedged into narrow valleys. We hiked in a verdant wood with an understory of charred laurel, and saw rhinos lounging on Virginia hillsides. America was old and weird and full of tchochkes and trout streams, unfurling along the ribbons of road that spool out from the knotted cities.

We drove, we ate, we wandered and visited.

We bought fuel, we bought food, we bought lodging, we bought tickets.

The price of gas in Maine is up over 30% in a year. The price of food is at least that. The price of electricity has nearly doubled for many of us. The cost of housing, whether it is rent or repairs, is through the roof. And were you thinking of spending a little money on leisure? I bought a burger at a pub the other day. Price before tax and tip? $15.

I keep hearing myself say, “the cost of living is way up.”

And I’m afraid.

What am I afraid of? That I won’t have fuel, or food? No, I don’t truly fear that. What I fear is I will be reduced to subsistence; returned to the default state of nature which is material poverty. I’m not afraid I won’t eat; I’m afraid I won’t eat well, or won’t eat out, or won’t eat what I want.

But if that is a risk, and it certainly is, is this what “living” is? Is this its cost? In this very moment, drawing this breath, none of these transactions are taking place. Am I not alive right now?

In each moment, I can choose whether to allow my attention to be hooked and dragged along, or whether to observe its meanderings.

When I was in the hospital, with my guts so torn and tied in knots from the drugs that I couldn’t look elsewhere, I learned to focus on the pain. I practiced entering the eye of the needle and riding that agonizing thread where-ever it went. Sometimes the pain dissolved in those individual moments, just enough, like a five second nap in the middle of childbirth. But even when it didn’t, I found a kind of control, like riding a wild horse; if you flag or fight, it can kill you, but if you keep all your concentration on aligning to the flow of movement, you might just stay on.

So I tried an experiment. Driving to the office, I thought, what if I smile to see how high the gas prices can go? What if I get excited at what my groceries cost this week? What if I challenge myself to see if I can look forward to the electric bill? What if I treat this as pain that is not in my control, and move into it so that it doesn’t hijack me? Can I be in love with the experience of being? Can I be more fully alive because of these “costs,” such that they become dividends instead?

What happens to the “cost of living” then? Living returns to the present, and the processional; rather than being a future state of destitution, each moment that could contain fear becomes an opportunity for expansion. And by staring straight at it, I confine that moment to its proper space and time, and leave the rest free for all of what there is in the world to explore. In trying not to see it, I allow it to dominate my consciousness and subconsciousness. But in seeing it fully and for what it is, the entire universe in a grain of sand and also just a grain of sand, I create a nearly-infinite resource out of my attention, where before there was only the draining away of scarce currency.

What is my cost of living? It’s out there on those ribbons of road.

“We’ve got the sky to talk about, and the world to lie upon.” – Townes Van Zandt.