Meditations on Soul and Back Roads and Ethos

Life is complicated – there are lots of facets. But riding under all of them – or as a blanket over them – is ethos.

Ethos is what makes your life yours – it’s how you give it flair, and vibe, and aesthetic. It’s style and signature and voice.

What’s yours?

Driving a sporty old SUV in the dark, in a light rain, with my windows partway down, down lonely back roads with Chris Stapleton on my speakers, I find mine. In my life, it comes and goes in waves – sometimes it’s strong as hell, strong as whiskey, strong as midsummer midday sunshine, and you’re burning with it. Other times it strays off somewhere, and you’re left empty and stranded, drifting on the ocean without a compass, feeling strange as a field without rain.

It’s burning strong tonight. I live for it, breathe it, feel it. My windshield wipers move in the dark, and my ethos wraps itself around me, fills me up, holds me tight.

I am words and stories and feelings; I am Carhartt hat and plaid shirt and loose hands on a steering wheel, bare feet, flipflops on the floor and the aftertaste of chai in my mouth, a singing voice like dust and wind, the open space of lonely fields, philosophy and dirt under my fingernails and focus, ideas that haven’t been created yet, thoughts that haven’t been spoken yet, sunshine and moonlight, halfway reckless and halfway aching and halfway exhilarated and halfway free and halfway liberated and halfway quiet.

An ethos is half something you create and half something that come natural. It’s taking what you already are and then making it your own even further.

You can nurture it, magnify it, highlight it, express it.

I drive through a little town that was a place to arrive at once, but which is dead now. I light up the narrow streets with my headlights. Chris Stapleton sings about the devil and the bottle. I hear a rushing to my left, see the train rattling parallel to me, on the other side of the houses. It slows down when it approaches the station — it still stops in this little town.

The rain falls thin and light. You can see it underneath the streetlights.

I turn onto a side street and drive underneath the railroad tracks, just past the station. I see the train, see the lights; I hear the bell of the train clanging as it gets ready to pull out again, headed eastbound, towards someplace actually on the map. A pickup truck sits in the parking lot, its lights on, engine running.

This town was a pulse once; a converging of roads and railways – arteries through this rich farmland and woodland – into one center; a rising of human energy, an expression of potential being fulfilled. German work ethic, English pretension, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, mixing together to create physical, tangible things – houses rising up out of the ground, a steel mill, a basketball team.

It’s dead now – just ghosts and lost people left, the directionless flotsam that life left behind when its eddies swirled and then swept elsewhere. The stained bricks look bad in the daylight, but they’re hidden now, by the rain and the dark.

I love the history. The stories. They feed me – I roll them around in my mouth like candy, feel their shapes on my tongue, tuck them away where I can carry them with me.

This was something once. Now it’s something else, but the ghost of what it was still exists somewhere, because it was once real. I can’t stop searching until I find it – feeling out in the dark, until I start to come on the shape of something that’s right. I know when I do – I can feel its presence. It has an ethos.
When you find the ethos, you can wrap it up around you. You understand.

Understanding is everything. When you understand, you come closer to God, or whatever it is you believe is out there. If you believe there’s something – a higher power, God, the Universe – you acknowledge that that something is knowledge. It understands – which we humans can only strive to do.

It’s a deeply spiritual experience.

Those flashes of ethos? They’re what I live for.

When I’m without I search for them, groping in the dark. Deprive me and I’ll keep breathing, but my soul will be dead.

It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. When it does, I die a little bit inside.

It feels like a drink of cold water when I find it again. Ethos. The turning of my soul back into the universe.

I don’t know why humans exist, why we’re alive. I tried to figure it out once, but I gave up – it didn’t make sense. But I know why I’m alive. I’m alive to find these strikes of ethos – these flashes of illumination in the dark, these moments of understanding.

If someone asked me to give them a reason why I keep breathing, I’d tell them it’s for the ethos.

Driving out of town again, the lights of a pickup truck reflecting in my rearview mirror, my windshield wipers in the rain, the smell of it – I find my ethos again. It’s riding close tonight. Chris Stapleton on my speakers – the sound of a harmonica, a pedal steel, something lonesome; the sound of his voice on his throat, tasting like cigarette smoke and dust, probably. His ethos feeds mine.

The long stretches of road with no trees and no houses – just farmlands, sloping slowly up to the crest of a hill, only their edges illuminated by my headlights – those places fill me up, make me feel alive.

If ethos is why I live at all, these lonely stretches of road are why I live here.

When you can balance perfectly the fullness and the aching . . . that’s how humans were supposed to live, I think.

All the things I want to capture, things I want to say – the way I drive alone through a traffic light, crossing the highway, and the way the light changes behind me in my rearview mirror, green to a long yellow to red, the colors glowing in the water drops on my back window, reflecting on the water on the dark road. How do you say it, say it someone else can feel it? The quiet of a dark road, the fascination of the lights, the sense of the traffic moving on the highway? There are words somewhere, I think, but I don’t know where to find them.

Developing an ethos is only half the battle – finding your soul, expressing it, bringing it to life. You can feel its presence, here in the dark. The harder part is finding a way to articulate it. The world is full of words, but it’s hard to find the right ones to say what you mean. It’s like groping in the dark.

Maybe someday I’ll get there. Maybe someday I’ll find an ethos that taps me into the part of the God-universe that tells you how to write words that transmute these ethoses, and then I’ll understand.

Until then, I’ll keep searching. Once in a while I get it, and when I do, it’s halfway ecstasy and halfway prayer – raising my dust-voice up into the dark in a quiet thank you – a voice that is half air, on which you can still feel my lungs and my throat, hear me riding on it.

Most nights it’s hard.

Some nights – like tonight – I’m flying.

Fiction #2: Annapolis

She sat in a diner on Main Street
and ate French fries with her fingers
and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders
and looked out at the rain.
The waitress —
a thin-faced woman named Mary —
had to talk to her
to get her attention.
Called her “hon.”
Brought her a tall glass of cool water.
She sipped the water
and tasted the bay
and looked out at the rain,
listened to the wind blowing down the street
towards the water,
face empty,
lost somewhere far off.

Out on the bay somewhere
a Coast Guard man
with a pale brown crew cut
and a waterproof jacket
stood on a boat
and felt the vibrating of the engine
through his boots.
His collar was turned up
and his eyes were squinted against the driving of the wind
and his shoulders were square,
his face
like it always in a storm,
when the stakes were high
and he found himself heading out
instead of turning for the shore.

Out there somewhere
between the east shore and the west
his body moved with the vibrating of the boat
and he was saving someone,
and the girl in the diner just wanted to touch him.

Out there
was a hell of a lot of water
and the wind was rough,
and sometimes boys drowned.

Strong lungs
filling up with water
cutting the life out —
Tasting nasty like murk and brine.

Over the centuries
there’ve been a hell of a lot
of women’s tears
falling on the ground
of both shores
and making their way
into the bay.

The girl in the shawl
knew he probably
wasn’t thinking of her,
but she pretended he was.
She wrapped the shawl around herself
with cold fingers
and sipped cool water,
and she could almost feel the water of the bay
cold and clammy
lapping up against her heart.