Orangutans are largely solitary creatures, and because the ingredients of their preferred diet are widely dispersed, they’ve developed ways to avoid having to rummage through the canopy all day, expending precious energy in a restless search for food. One of these strategies entails little more than sitting quietly on a high branch and peering off into the dense green air until the desired delicacy announces itself to their gaze. Primatologists who study the apes have called this behavior “the fruit stare.”
I’ve been doing it a lot myself lately. Midway through last summer, I stepped into the in-between of in-betweenjobs. I’d visited this particular bardo before and had always returned, at the end of my transit, to a mundane realm inhabited by an alarming number of both hungry ghosts and jealous gods: the world of New York journalism. Now I was hoping that time in the in-between might lead me somewhere else.
Like more than a million others last year, I was laid off, a downsized casualty of a company down on its luck. However, unlike most (my pride insists on noting), my departure was voluntary. If leaving was a way to spare my boss some broader and more painful staff curs, it was also a way to spare myself the daily necessity of foraging in the corporate canopy, expending precious energy in search of a satisfaction greater than vested stock options. In the end, I bent my neck to the block willingly. I could honestly say that I had, as the human-resource handbook blithely frames it, “chosen to pursue other opportunities.”
Because of the circumstances, my leaving wasn’t fraught with careerist panic, or with rueful clinging to a familiar if tedious rourine, or with any bur a few passing twinges of regret. I was, after all, getting exactly what I’d asked for. But when I finally hailed a cab and headed home-home, that is, to a newly renovated apartment, a sunny terrace, and a loving wife-I was seized by a dizzying mix of joy and (mostly) terror. What, I thought, had I been thinking?
I’d tasted something similar once on a trip to Colorado.
One bright September afternoon, I drove north out of Telluride with the friend of a friend to hunt for mushrooms in the Uncompahgre Forest. Though Terry had lost his hearing a few years earlier, he continued to teach mountaineering and could lip-read with eerie ease. After a calf-searing climb across scrubby meadow into the pines, Terry stopped, gave me a brief lesson in mycological safety, and then loped off uphill faster than my sea-level lungs would allow. “Oh, by the way,” he called out casually just before vanishing over a rise, “watch out for the black bears.” And so I found myself deep in a vast and literal wilderness, faced with either an ugly ursine mauling or a backpack full of chanterelles (I saw no middle ground), my only savior a deaf man well beyond the signal of my flailing arms.
Thinking now about that day and the other-both of them suspended, in a way, between a kind of death and a kind of delight-it begins to feel as if the in-between isn’t where I am now, but rather back where I packed up my boxes and said my good-byes. My former office, windowless, noisily ventilated, and evenly lit, seems more what I imagine a bardo to be: a sort of waiting room in which the doctor is certain eventually to appear, though most likely with a prescription for another vial of the same medicine.
At home, meanwhile, I’ve made acquaintance once again with the weather, with my neighbors, and with the risk of being left to my own devices. I can hear the traffic, and a tenor practicing arias, and dogs complaining in the park. And after months of chronicling the amphetamine shifts of the Internet, I’m learning to tell time by the garden on our terrace, a lush biological clock that moves according to the seasons.
I don’t know what comes next. But free from the soporific meetings and the querulous e-mail, I’m beginning to settle into whatever this is, bardo or not. Every day I read some, and write some, and watch fat bees chew up the hyssop flowers and kick apart the roses. I also stare off into the wisteria vines that tangle along the parapet, waiting for something to appear. It’s called the fruit stare. Watch: I’m doing it right now . ▼
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