The neurons begin firing with the first sound of the alarm clock. I retrieve my senses from the strange dream about getting caught cheating on my SAT exam by my financial adviser, which will require several hours in therapy to unravel.

Eric Frydenlund mug

Eric Frydenlund

Having corralled my neurons from pursuing nonsensical nightmares, I begin the day by making a list of what is important. I belong to that large subset of Homo sapiens called “list makers,” who evolution may call for extinction by the fact we make a list of options when caught in the path of an oncoming truck.

First, I will check my email for incoming missives from family, friends and co-workers. I will check the radio for reports of incoming missiles from North Korea. I will verify the authenticity of such reports. I will check the news for incoming tweets from Washington. No, let’s wait on that. I will begin that work project I have been procrastinating on, and for which a deadline looms. No, let’s wait on that too.

Yet having made a list of important things to do, the question still begs: What is important?

Lists that begin with “I” help plan our days and guide our lives, much like scripts direct works of fiction. Yet they leave little room for the unexpected; for the important moments that happen outside ourselves. A walk with our spouse. A talk with our children. A game with our grandchildren.

Entire lives unfold in these moments.

At this moment in our self-gratified society, we are obsessed with the letter “I” in our lives. Copernicus proved in 1543 that the earth was not the center of the universe. And 475 years later, we still imagine ourselves the center of the universe; only it is not earth, it is “I” — endowed with the same sense of gravity as this lonely lump of rock floating in space.

The “Snow Leopard” chronicles author Peter Matthiessen’s spiritual trek through the Himalayas, an impressive outcropping of this lonely rock, in search of this illusive creature; and also, what is important in his life. Caught between the death of his wife and the continuing needs of his children he finds balance in the mountains of Nepal.

Against the sublime backdrop of sunlit mountains and shadowed valleys that few humans outside Sherpas and remote Himalayan villagers have witnessed, the individual disappears. Matthiessen writes of the Buddhist state of nirvana, where “mind is universal mind of which individual minds are part.” In the diminishing importance of our past and future, “we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is.”

After completing my list, checking it twice for authenticity, I get out of bed and look out the window. An animal is standing at the back of our yard. It resembles a small deer from a distance, but I notice a long bushy tail hanging from its back quarters. It stands still, as if fixed to the landscape, ears perked, eyes leveled, legs poised. A mysterious creature exits the wilderness and arrives on the edge of my pedestrian awareness.

Its mate soon appears, rising from the deep ravine adjoining our backyard, and the two of them move cautiously up the bluff. Is it a wolf, as rare in these parts as the snow leopard in the Himalayas? Or is it a coyote, an often heard but seldom seen creature of the Driftless “mountains” of southwestern Wisconsin?

My wife seems amused by my new-found obsession. Measuring the tracks in the snow to be 3 inches in diameter and consulting Dennis Kirschbaum, a retired DNR warden, I determine it’s a large coyote; the voice behind the melancholy yips and howls that echo in our small valley at night, sending primordial shivers up my spine. Seeing the coyote puts sight to sensation; a plot to the mystery.

I have forgotten myself. I have forgotten my list. Two list-busters enter my world and render the script useless in this moment.

Eric Frydenlund is a columnist who lives in Prairie du Chien and writes about nature, politics and social issues from a systems perspective.

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