by Sterling Augustine
Dad quietly turns the light in the living room on to its lowest setting. I’m sure he hopes that no one knows he’s awake; he hates disturbing us. There’s no big problem that keeps Dad up tonight; he just doesn’t need the sleep. So he sits in his easy chair and reads.
Someone catching Dad awake at 3:00 a.m. would spoil his ritual, his trance-like engrossment in his latest book. He finds contentment in the solitude of his private insomnia, a mix of tranquillity and almost religious isolation—a solitude that presents itself at our home only in the middle of the night. I watch the living room light seep under my bedroom door.
Home between semesters, I have been awake with Dad for the past few nights. And even though I’m still recovering from finals’ long nights, like Dad, I don’t need the sleep. In fact, if he weren’t already up, I would pad around the house, trying not to disturb anyone and enjoying the quiet. I too am a little embarrassed when someone finds me in the living room at 3 a.m. for no better reason than I couldn’t sleep.
Our sleepless nights coincide often. More, I’m sure, than either of us knows. Through some undiscussed-even unconscious unilateral agreement, I don’t disturb him. And I imagine he knows not to bother me. He probably lies in his bed, sensing the light seeping under his door, wondering what keeps his son awake. In this way we share our sleepless nights.
Dad never taught me to enjoy those dark hours spent reading or thinking, but I do. I certainly couldn’t have learned this habit by example, because with any interruption Dad’s ritual ends, and he turns from savant pouring over some mystic tome into accommodating Father, concerned that he has disturbed someone’s sleep. Yet I do know how he feels during these late hours because I know how I feel.
Although Dad would deny it, eight children strain the man reluctant to get married. He wasn’t sure that he could live with another person. Mother persuaded him otherwise. He’s glad she did, but the hermit in him misses the days he worked for the forest service, living alone in the woods for weeks at a time.
When he’s in a sagacious mood, he tells stories of those summers in the woods, sounding like he was on Walden Pond. Sometimes he tells about the miles he walked checking his string of traps near Mansfield, Ohio, when he was fourteen. This story he told me by letter: ‘When I was about Sam’s age, I used to go down to the stream behind our house (about four miles away) and look for different shaped stones or anything that was special and caught my eye. I would sometimes (more often than not) walk for miles (10-15 miles) just looking.”
Even now, forty-five years later, Dad walks to think, looking for what Annie Dillard calls “pennies.” There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? … But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. Dad finds these “unwrapped gifts and free surprises” wherever he goes.
When I was ten, my family took a trip to the Oregon coast. About five miles of sand-dunes separated our campground and the beach. One morning as we played on the sand dunes, we kids decided to walk to the beach, following a path that Dad had walked earlier that day. We made it about halfway before turning back, bringing home the usual assortment of shells, driftwood, and children’s treasures-pennies.
We didn’t see Dad, even from the highest dunes, until he arrived at camp late that afternoon. Not only had he walked all the way to the beach, he had also walked along the beach several miles, where he found several teenagers driving dune buggies. He stopped and talked to them. Then my dad convinced a nineteen-year-old hippie into driving him home. I can only smile thinking of a dilapidated dune buggy catching air off some enormous sand dune and my college-professor dad grinning and holding onto his battered hat. A penny indeed.
I don’t have my father’s eye for pennies. I haven’t cultivated a healthy poverty the way he has through his contemplative walks. And I can’t remember ever taking one of those walks with him. He’s never invited me—and I’ve never thought to ask. I’m not sure he knows when he’s about to take one.
Neither do I. Like that day last summer when my philosophy class finished early. I got on my motorcycle to drive home and nearly reached the end of Hobble Creek Canyon before I realized that I was driving aimlessly, enjoying the solitude, engrossed in thought and gazing at the fire the sun splashed against the canyon walls. In that canyon I found a penny—another part of me so like my Father, my version of his long walks.
Tonight Dad looks for pennies in the small pool of light illuminating his book. He sits in the living room, the light warming the darkness. I wonder what he reads tonight. Perhaps a book my sister Kif gave him last week, Hermann Hesse’s Siddharthe. His walks have given him a taste for deep thought found only in books about the human condition. Other topics don’t have the depth of a long walk.
Dad reads five or six books at a time, either checking a book out from the library or choosing one from the shelfin his study: The Way of the Sufi, The Man who Discovered the Secrets of the Universe, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and The Collected Works of Leo Tolstoi.
When I lived at home, Dad would read aloud from those books while sitting in his easy chair. I would lay luxuriously on the soft floor with the house entirely dark, except for the light from the same lamp he reads by tonight. I would fall half asleep soothed by Dad‘s resonant voice and Tolstoi’s story of the Bishop and the three hermits. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet.
He seemed to invent the text each time he read it—his voice owning the story completely, his words slowly overflowing from a deep well of eloquence that he rarely lets us see. His deliberate nature serves Russian diction well. Not even a pause on words like desyatina and rozgovieni. The cold steppes, the small huts, and the Russian peasants’ austere lives materialize clearly in my mind as I remember him reading. If I were ever to direct a movie, I would take the script home, find Dad sitting in his chair one evening, stretch out on the floor, and have Dad read me that script by the light of that same lamp. I would then know exactly how to give the script life.
Reading out loud is troublesome for me. After about five minutes my head grows light, and I have to stop to breathe. But I do have a section of mystic books on my bookshelf. Dubliners, The Prophet, and The Brothers Karamazov—a book I read during my freshman year. While everyone else struggled through three-page paragraphs with names like Smerdyakov and Ilyusha, The Brothers kept me from feeling homesick. At the really hard parts, I would stretch out on the floor and listen for Dad’s voice.
In all, Dad may have sent me five letters before I turned twenty one, even though I moved out of the house when I was sixteen. In almost every letter he has ever written me, he has included a quote, a poem, or some idea that he had stored away, waiting to share with someone when the time was right. He fills his letters to rrie with musings he almost never mentions in person: quotes in Latin, thoughts on The Screw tape Letters, explanations ofHesse’ s Demaine. He tells me of his love in passionate, almost painful terms by letter. Face to face, he limits them to the simple “I love you.”
Like him, I enjoy giving away pennies. I always send my letters with a poem or at least a brief quote. Kipling’s “L’Envoi”; Emerson saying “Rings and other jewels are not gifts but apologies for gifts”; or something from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. Like my father, I express my feelings much better in pen and ink than in conversation.
I have never tried to be just like my father, and Dad has never tried to mold me in his image. When I tell him I want to be a professor he warns me not to choose his career. But sometimes I stumble on another similarity and surprise myself. During the past few years I even outgrew modern music and now covet Dad’s collection of original jazz piano recordings. And although we have many differences, they only thinly cover all the traits that father passes to son. Traits that he imparts more through proximity than through teaching. Traits acquired on the long walks looking for pennies that we both take alone. And while I may not be walking in his footsteps, it seems I have his stride.