The other evening, about cocktail hour, I sat on the chaise in the backyard of our house near the village, looking at the tree swallows wheeling and chittering high up in the sky. It reminded me of when I lived in the woods not too long ago, and I was comforted to see these birds here, too. What else have I seen, I asked myself? Ospreys and egrets, since the river is so close. Catbirds, wrens, bluebirds, cardinals, house finches.And bald eagles. I have heard thrushes on those soft mornings they love so much. Plenty, to feel like I’m still surrounded by nature.
Living here has advantages to living in the woods. There’s the Tour de Crumb Cake, for instance. This is when I ride my bike down the river road until I get to Not Ken’s Coffeehouse, where I buy two crumb cakes and one coffee (one of the crumb cakes is for Richie, of course.) I arrange them all in the bag on my D.E.B. bike (intelligently designed and made by Kris Henry for just such a purpose) and pedal until I get to an entrance nearly obscured by large hedges, where I turn and coast past the gravestones to a bench overlooking the water. Here I sit and eat my crumb cake and drink whatever coffee hasn’t spilled out, and I am soothed.
One day, I was disheartened and annoyed to see a small group of people at the overlook near the bench where I always sat. Grumpily, I biked to a different bench and munched the crumb cake, but it was not the same. Obviously other people had discovered the peace and beauty of this place, and now it would be ruined forever; it would be a destination. I cast baleful glances at the group as I munched, until small details pierced through my irritation. I felt sheepish.
It was a funeral.
And so, the cemetery remains a safe destination for rest and peace,
and not just for me.
I thought it might be time for something beautiful.
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the trees
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
The summer birds are starting to arrive and they’ve got one thing on their mind; raising a family—and that means staking out territory. The Canada geese and the Mallards arrive first. In fact, in years past, when the winter wasn’t so mild, Mister and Missus Goose have arrived when the pond was still frozen over. I have watched Mister Goose carefully stepping along the ice toward the nesting spot that he had no doubt been regaling about to the missus all winter. She, for her part, seemed to be saying with each deliberate irritated step, “Another fine idea you’ve got, Mr. Goose.”
This year the geese and the ducks decided to swap nesting sites. The geese are now nesting in the tiny island where the ducks nested last year, and the ducks are in the slightly bigger island. I tell them it probably won’t end well, no matter what. There’s a mink that’s savvy to both nesting spots.
But be that as it may, they’re going ahead with it. I know this because I see the husbands hanging out together in the pond—one duck, one goose floating near each other. The Missus’s leave the nests only once a day for a small bit. They eat, they splash around, and then it’s back to incubating. The husbands continue their floating and their fraternity. It’s all very archetypal—the female nurtures, the male protects.
If another goose should show up, Mister Goose lets him know in no uncertain terms with a great deal of honking, that this pond is taken. However, he doesn’t do this with the smaller waterfowl. The mallard male seems to be a friend and there’s a pie-billed grebe in the pond that dives to eat fish. I often see it three or four feet from the feeding goose, diving with gusto, no doubt because the dabbling goose stirs up all sorts of goodies.
It’s an elaborate dance of harmony that seems to be how nature operates. And watching it, I wonder, what happened to our species?
One night not long ago, I woke up at 2:00 am. I lay there listening to Richie and Buddy breathe. I listened to my brain rushing through all its thoughts of what to do, when to do it, and what has been done. Our window looks out on the water and for the first time in at least a week it was a clear night; I could see stars reflected in the still water and Orion like a jewel.
Stars. They settle me—settle my restless brain with their steadfastness. A long time ago, I read a poem by the nineteenth century English poet, Matthew Arnold. It had me at the first two lines:
Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,…
Ah, isolation, confusion. I could relate.
…”ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!”
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.
Live as they. Calm and Belonging in the universal sense. It was the answer I was looking for those many years ago and it was the answer that renewed itself to me again that sleepless night.
“I have rejected things with nothing so strong to replace them, and I am floundering.” So I wrote to my Zen teacher twenty-nine years ago. And in the way of the cycles of life, twenty-nine years later, I find myself at this point again. (As an aside, this appears to be where we are at as a country, also.) We humans build up our internal infrastructures, relying on their existence for our sense of meaning, forgetting that infrastructures, too, get outdated and need to be refurbished. Life demands growth, and growth is change.
The realization that what worked for us in the past no longer does, is part of a natural cycle of growth. But just because it’s supposed to happen, doesn’t mean it feels great. As a matter of fact, it often feels so un-great that people have developed stock coping mechanisms. Some buy the little red sports car. Some throw off their partners for someone younger, some abuse alcohol and drugs—all to avoid feeling the pain of growth.
What did my Zen teacher write back to me? “If you are floundering, then just flounder” adhering to the Zen teachings of just experiencing your life without attachment.
No stones are left unturned in our lives (try as we might to keep them face down) because we are growing, thinking beings. A time of questioning beliefs, priorities, and values comes to everyone.
I forget sometimes, because it is so damn scary, that the best course of action is to sit right in the middle of it, experiencing (and not reacting to) those uncomfortable feelings. The floundering, like the curve in the road, brings us to the next place in our lives.
“Oh, I LOVE winter,” younger me used to say. “It’s so much fun, you can cross country ski, and snowshoe and make snowmen and it’s so cozy.”
I suppose it was last winter that did me in. So now, winter has become my time for escape. And my escape in winter is reading about physics and astronomy. As the white stuff piles up and daily living is more of a chore of shoveling snow and hauling wood, to curl up and read about the tiny world of quarks or the vast world of galaxies is delicious.
Right now I am reading Lisa Randall’s new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (selected by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings as one of the top 15 books she has read this year—a list, BTW, guaranteed to make you feel inadequate.)
Randall talks about dark matter, the concept of which I couldn’t quite grasp for a long time, but now I do. We can’t see dark matter because it doesn’t reflect light and we can’t feel it because its force is too weak to have an effect on us at its level in our everyday lives. But we know it exists because in greater densities it exerts a gravitational force. And not only that, but there is much more of it than the matter we can see. So the truth is, we are literally surrounded by dark matter.
As I grow older, more experienced, less sanguine, and more settled into convenience, the awareness of the vast mystery of our Universe is a tonic. And that, perhaps, is the real fountain of youth.
Snails, we are brought up to think, are slow. I am here to tell you that snails are not slow. Not when you’re using them as models as you perch on a low-tide rock, peering into a tide pool with watercolors balanced beside you and you are in the full grip of an artistic fever to capture this light and shaped-filled moment. Then snails hunker along quite annoyingly rapidly. What was, when you first spied it, a sinuous curve of light and dark, two snails in a perfect sine wave and you catch your breath with the awe of it and quickly, quickly! get your pencil and brush and paper out and, secure in the knowledge that snails are slow and you have plenty of time—all the time in the world, in fact, given that snails are so slow—lay down a line of shape and hue and glance to your models and discover that, oh my gosh, that sine curve is no longer. Now the space between them only speaks of space between them and not a beautiful visual harmony and you shake your head a little wondering if in fact you were mistaken at the beginning and then you realize, HEY, they are moving! Little-thick-antennae-sticking-out-suctioning-along-pulling-the-shell-behind-purposeful-moving.
I don’t pretend to know where snails in a tide pool are going. It’s only a tiny tide pool after all. But they have shown me that slow is relative and that time, tide and snails wait for no man.
When I posted last week about watching dragonflies hatch, I didn’t realize at the time it was a metaphor for my current life.
This past week, it seemed every direction I faced there was a wall. Nothing got finished; everything in process, obstacles galore. After about the third frustrating project, the image of the dragonfly nymph popped up. My subconscious was knocking.
I thought back to that afternoon and how I had felt a combination of peace and impatience watching the nymph emerging from its confining caste. The peace because it felt so wondrous, the impatience because it was taking so long.
I remembered how the nymph’s emergence had had spurts of effort followed by long moments of stillness. During the still parts, I imagined the nymph making minute adjustments to its still-restrained body inside the caste, cognizant that a single impulsive movement could tear the delicate membrane of the wings. (I did see a dragonfly that had emerged with crooked, broken wings–heartbreaking–and this dragonfly was doomed. A dragonfly must be able to fly.)
I think anyone who tries something new (which is another word for growth) is like that nymph emerging. And like the nymph that instinctively knows when to push and when to rest and adjust, I think there is a roadmap inside us.
If a dragonfly is given the intrinsic knowledge of how to grow, surely we, as part of nature, are too. There is no guarantee we will be successful (the broken-winged dragonfly) but there is the knowledge, always, waiting for us to only listen.
It is a soft, wood thrush morning this morning and sure enough, as soon as I step outside in the misty half-light, I hear him. An ethereal, bamboo flute song that echoes the mystery of the morning.
Hearing it coaxes out my child-wonder and I breathe in deeply and fully. A gentle and magical beginning to my day.
When I can, I walk with The Ladies in the mornings. They range in age from sixties to early eighties. We walk up and down the dirt road, two miles in all. It allows lots of time for conversation. Many of them have lived in this tiny town most, if not all, their lives. They talk about the stuff of life, matter-of-fact, and do not dwell on the big questions. They are not blind to the big questions, far from it, but they think that if they pay attention to the details, the big questions will take care of themselves.
It is refreshing to be around them. No one talks about being unfulfilled—they are mostly retired from their jobs as factory workers or assistants, but even if they were still working, you get the feeling they wouldn’t complain. Be grateful to have a job, they would say; work at it earnestly and honestly and treat people the way you would like to be treated.
There is a simple honesty to the life of making do with what you have that is lost in our age of instant gratification. We want more because there is more—it is shoved at us so relentlessly that we have forgotten we have the choice to decide our own happiness.
The Ladies have mastered the art of being content.