The air is heavy in Sheridan County today. We cannot see our mountains through the smoke that has settled in the valley. Idaho is on fire and our horizon is missing. Their stoic grandeur usually feels solid and certain, directional; I feel lost without the mountains to my west.
The missing mountains upend me even more as I leave summer days behind for my office and curriculum planning. It’s not that I hate coming to work – I love my job and I am annoyingly fond of the starting school year. But I do not like trading fresh air and sunshine for inside time. I always feel a bit lost in my air conditioned office.
Yet today I was happy to work indoors, if only to escape the smoke. The fog I face in my brain is so similar to the veil hiding my mountains. I know where the peaks are, but when they aren’t in sight I feel disoriented. I know how to plan the semester, but I can’t see beyond the pile of work in front of me to the start of classes.
As I point out before the start of every semester, when my usual landmarks are missing, I go looking for words. Sometimes I search for class readings and lesson ideas, but more often I read poetry. The poet’s economy of words smooths the frayed edges of my back-to-school brain. This August, I keep going back to the epitaph that was just added to Seamus Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy, Co Derry, Ireland: “walk on air against your better judgement.”
Heaney has explained the line, from his poem The Gravel Walks, as a new understanding, a break from his “earth hugging” work that is so closely tied to the practical world. He said he began “to look up” and realize that “the marvelous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact.” Heaney reminds his readers to seek the in-between spaces. He has said that the space between the “dream world” and the “given world” is beautiful, even necessary.
When we cannot see clearly, we are forced to look up from the practical, “given,” world. Maybe the smoky veil obscuring the mountains forces me to seek new landmarks. And maybe the haze of the new school semester forces me to seek inspiration in unfamiliar places. Heaney’s recommendation “to walk on air” suggests an action rooted in something like faith. We cannot use our knowing brains to understand the “dream world” – we must extend our thinking and trust something other than what we can see in front of us. I feel ungrounded without my mountains, but that seems to be just what Heaney is suggesting: an un-grounding that will reveal the marvelous.
The smoky air makes it hard for me to breath and I will welcome the change in winds forecasted to move this air away from our valley. I will welcome clear skies and familiar landmarks. Likely the haze in the air will dissipate far more quickly than the haze in my head, but maybe I can take advantage of the change in perspective and find something spectacular for my upcoming classes.