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Coffee Dreams

A collection of essays by Donald Skiff
332 pages

Introduction: The Path Back Down

When you are on an uphill path, even though you might stop now and then to look around and get your bearings, it seems that most of the time youíre focused on the path right in front of you. Your whole visual field is filled with the earth closest to you. One foot in front of the other, on and on, until you reach the top. Coming back down is different. The perspective is altered profoundly. Your field of view is much larger, more distant. In fact, itís harder to keep your eyes on the path; itís much more tempting to stop and just take in the view.

Sometimes your internal perspective changes, as well. Looking across a wide valley might make you think about whatís over there on the other side, or who lives there. That house, partly hidden in the trees, has a different feeling to it than it would if you were standing in the street in front of it. From here, you see its relationship to the overall topography, rather than how large a lot it might sit on. Property lines are not visible from here. A different kind of relationship reveals itself, and your relationship to it all is somehow clearer.

 

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During World War Two, the famous cartoonist Bill Mauldin traveled with the infantry and distilled much of the experience of the ordinary soldier in a series of cartoons. One that I remember because of its suggestion of a broader philosophical insight showed a small group of soldiers on the top of a mountain looking far down at the beach at Anzio, Italy. ďYou mean,Ē one says, ďthey was up here, and we was down there?Ē It summed up the desperate situation of the battle of Anzio, where Allied soldiers landed on the beach and had to fight their way inland. The Germans, controlling the hilltops, had a powerful advantage over the invading troops.

The advantage provided by perspective has often escaped my attention in my life. My short-term goals and desires usually block out longer-term values and objectives. Thatís the theme of a recent essay, ďPushing On,Ē that looks back at my life-long tendency to keep doing what Iím doing just because thatís what Iím doing, and thatís all I can think about. In those situations, Iím climbing the hill, and all I can see is the path in front of me.

After a life crisis of some kind, I sometimes stop and see things differently. (At least I hope I do.) Thereís something about going through an intense experience that leaves me open to a larger perspective. When the pressure lifts, thereís a space in my psyche that allows something else to enter. Iíd like to think itís related to wisdom. Little does it matter whether I won or lost the battle; after itís over I donít look at it in quite the same way again. Well, maybe not always. But sometimes, when my lifeís been particularly intense and my purposes uprooted, I find that something shifts inside me. Like when the sun comes out right after a thunderstorm, thereís sometimes a clarity in the air.

In this book are a bunch of essays. Some were written in moments after a psychological thunderstorm. Some were written in the middle of one, when nothing seems clear except my need for answers. Some are very personal observations on my own life, and others seem as though they might reflect larger issues. Nearly all of them have been written in the past few years, after I stopped putting in time for someone elseís worldly needs (while trying to not neglect all of my own). I have written since I was a school boy, and when I wrote what I felt it nearly always had to do with trying to make sense of my world. Iím fortunate that Iíve had a chance to use my time this way.

The image that ďthe path back downĒ gives to me is one of finally being able to see across the valley, and maybe getting a better sense of perspective toward life. Truth is not always just relative, nor is it always carved in stone. Nor is it always visible to us, even if we look very closely. Still, I think, if I pause now and then, invite it in and just wait quietly, something enters and curls up at my feet.

A lot of these essays, like those in my previous book, Dreams of Home, feel like journal entries to me. When I go back and read them, I can often touch again the psychological places I was in when I wrote them. A few are memoirs, and those take me back even further in my life. All of them grew out of that need to make sense of my life and my world. If the earlier ones now seem naÔve to me, itís because since then Iíve had other thoughts. Just as someone once wrote about our debt to history, ďwe stand on the shoulders of giants,Ē my views today owe a lot to the process marked by those naÔve insights. No doubt in another twenty years, should I still be around then, Iíll read my thoughts of today and smile indulgently. For itís never finished, this process. Riding off into the sunset is a movie clichť to cover up the reality of life: that itís a slow-motion marathon, each of us carrying the baton for a while then passing it off to the next person, never to know how the story turns out in the end.

Coming back down the path, having seen the sunlight on the hills across the way, ends inevitably in darkness, no matter how one rages ďagainst the dying of the light.Ē Dreams of heaven may console some. For me, it will be enough to have a place to sit a while, maybe share a glass of beer and a smile with someone I love, before saying goodnight to it all. 

Donald Skiff Ė April 2, 2003