Air temperature 59 degrees and I’m standing around in my bathing suit on the pool deck. I have the place to myself today, no surprise. The snorkel guy, the sidestroker, the two I call the Tsunami Sisters who eat up the pool with their dolphin kicks—they’ve taken their swimming inside for the season. It’s just me and the clouds and the sun and the shadows. And the passing rain. And the pool itself, a turquoise gem this afternoon. The raindrops stipple its surface and I make a joke, say to myself, Better get in before you get wet, and in I go.
The pool is somewhere between 79 and 82 degrees, so if I stay underwater and keep moving I’m warm enough. But I’m a mammal, an air-breather, though when I dream about swimming, as I often do, I can go without air forever. My face and arms are chilly as I swim the laps that bring me to a mile, and today the wind is up. The trees around the pool are bending, their leaves quaking, and a fleeting pattern of disturbance flits across the water.
I wear ear plugs to keep the pool out. There’s joy in a silent world and my eyes get sharper. I swim for the pleasure of the movement, for the enveloping touch of the water, but maybe most of all because I find pools so darn beautiful. Their color, their ability to hold and reflect light, their undulation that reminds me of a large body swaying, swaying and embracing. Sometimes I paddle along, my eyes right at the waterline, so I can see both the world above and the world below. I can feel the world of air on my back and the wet world of water on my belly. I can’t say why but bridging those elements, even for a moment, makes me happy. The world of limbs and lungs meets the world of fins and gills. Unchambered is the feeling. A floaty lightness.
There’s a spot a few inches above the bottom of the pool where you can feel weightless. It’s a different flavor of weightless than the kind you find on the water’s surface. This is dreamlike, a feeling of needing no breath, no movement, no job, no family. It’s a place without human things in it, no human needs or wants or concerns. I go there every time I get in the pool, and recently I’ve come to understand it may be a dress rehearsal for death. It may be a place where we can let go—of everything. Of body and mind. Of all that we desire, everything we set our sights on, and everywhere our ambition leads us. It is an absolutely peaceful place. Is this why we swim? To stay close to this peaceful place? A few inches above the bottom is where you’ll find it, the sweet spot where we are able to die, where death isn’t other anymore. The elements that cluster and clog us with joy or sorrow, they’re gone, and what’s left is what we’ve always thought of as death, a foreign land, a separate entity, but in fact it’s just what remains when the things that make us us are no longer there.
I’ve been reacquainting myself with dementia after some time away. Dementia doesn’t rest for a minute. It moves. It moves in a way we like to think of as linear in our own linear-leaning minds. But linear it is not. Nor circular. It is chaotic and random, four-dimensional, weaving in and out of time. One day the one who stands before you can only make sucking sounds with her mouth. The next day/moment she is speaking eloquently of Arabian horses. Who is in there? I make the mistake of wondering this often, without turning the mirror just so, in order to catch my own reflection. Who is in there?
There are repetitions, memories of long ago, and the cloud report. So many big fat clouds. No whisper of a memory of yesterday or the past five minutes. The face takes on a certain crazed look, familiar to anyone who has watched dementia progress. Yet it’s love we feel, and we feel it for the face that’s here before us as well as the face that used to be. A good haircut goes a long way in calming everyone down. The same old haircut, the familiar clothes, the same earrings, the same bit of toothpaste lumped in the sink. Reminders of the time before, the old days. Why do I crave what was, when what is is so much softer, so easy on the heart. The edge has worn away, the anger dissipated. Why not hunger for what’s here, now?
I have a religious friend. I like everything about our friendship but the religion. When she gets preachy she’s like a bad talk show host. Her mouth moves fast but her mind can’t keep up. She forgets who she’s talking to (me) and goes on and on about the lessons we learn from the diagnoses we’re given. She calls it redemption. Our suffering redeems us. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
After a dose of her I often feel I’ve waded through a flooding river of sludge. In my mouth is the bitter taste of ash. It’s like a gun going off inside me. What echoes is a kind of lengthy grief, a sadness that cannot land because dementia doesn’t rest, is always moving, always changing. Nothing is fixed. The story quivers and shakes and then, though I know better, I hope for an opening, a reassurance, a sign of the past, a jumble of sticks to cling to in a river in flood. We are down to the very essentials. What’s happening now and who are we? And then something inexpressibly lovely and calm and wise and true will float from her mouth. These days it’s about clouds.
Laura Matlaw joined our sixth-grade class at the school I went to in New York City. She had thick brown hair, the thickest and straightest hair I’d ever seen, and she was of medium height for a sixth-grader, and medium build. That changed, as you will discover, but this was her condition when she arrived. What was most notable about her at first was that she was from Hawaii. She was a pale girl, neither ethnically Hawaiian nor a sun-worshipper. It surprised us, too, that she had never learned to surf.
Laura loved Simon and Garfunkel. On weekends we walked around the city singing Homeward Bound and other S and G favorites, harmonizing in front of the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, or outside the Plaza Hotel which was Laura’s favorite place to go. Often we hung around the Plaza, waiting to see famous people arrive by limousine, and just as often we were disappointed by the poor showing. But at least once our patience paid off, when Charlie Chaplin, white-haired yet still balletic, stepped out of a black car and made his way up the steps to the hotel’s front door. He wore an old raincoat, much like my father’s, and the grace was unmistakably still with him.
Yes, we were best friends, Laura and I. I don’t remember how it happened but it happened quickly and naturally. She was a funny person. Most of my friends were funny, but she brought out the humor in others. And the wickedness. It seemed just right to spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon shoplifting from a store on Lexington Avenue called Paper East. We took pencil sharpeners and little notepads—things you could stick in your pocket—and left with a wave to the unsuspecting ladies behind the counter. “Thanks,” we said as we waltzed out the door, then doubled over with laughter out on the sidewalk.
My mother always thought Laura was a bad influence, and she was right, but I wanted a bad influence that year. I needed a little excitement in my life. Laura Matlaw, my mother always called her, as if her full name gave her more of an outlaw air. “That Laura Matlaw,” she would say. “Laura Matlaw made you stop eating. Laura Matlaw made you anorexic.” Everything but Laura Matlaw made you a thief.
Laura Matlaw looked like a walking skeleton by the time seventh grade began. She was a frightening presence with sunken eyes and band-aids on her knees. The malnutrition did something to her balance and depth perception so she stumbled and fell a lot, and every fall bloodied her knees. Her hair thinned and took on the texture of straw. Her lips were so dry they cracked every time she smiled. She stopped smiling. And singing. And shoplifting. I was still in her thrall at this time, and at school I began to skip lunch and instead headed to the gym to practice my foul shots. When my mother noticed my new aversion to food, or at least to eating, she sat down across the table from me after the rest of the family had finished, and she read to me from The Joy of Cooking the nutritional value in a hotdog bun. I was impervious and felt a terrible sense of satisfaction in seeing her cry—in making her cry. I wish it had been short-lived but it wasn’t. For a year after that I led an ascetic’s life, leaving the dinner table after a few miserable bites of whatever was put in front of me, and floating off to my room with my nightly indulgence: a cup of black tea.
Anorexia leaves its mark long after the complications of eating have been resolved. Every day I pay attention to a certain self-discipline that is punishing and not productive. I pay attention to moments of withheld generosity, especially to myself. I pay attention to states of want, states that seem to enhance experience when in fact they rob me of life’s richness. I pay attention to my undermining of success, in my career, in my intimate relationships. I pay attention to my attraction to having less, in case it’s a way of being less. When I put on raggedy clothing, I’m starting to ask myself why.
Years later, Laura Matlaw was the second in our class to die. The first was Sue Sanders, my best friend before Laura came along. She died, and the baby inside her died also, when her car was hit by a drunk driver. And Laura, she died not of starvation but of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a terrible death for an outlaw mind.
In our old apartment building in New York, we had an elevator man. Sometimes it was George, but usually it was Eddie. Eddie would welcome us into the elevator as if it were his home, which it was in a way, then he’d close the elevator doors and the heavy metal gate, and up we’d go. One time when it was just the two of us in the elevator, Eddie asked me if I’d like to do the driving. Those were his words, “do the driving.” Of course I would! He demonstrated how to push the handle in one direction to power up, and in the other direction to slow down and stop. He assured me there was no way I could rocket us out into the air above Manhattan if I was too heavy on the handle, but I could easily zip past 3 and land halfway to 4 without the proper finesse.
Incredibly, I don’t remember doing the driving that day, and that lapse of memory could only be because it never happened. Probably Mrs. Sulzberger on 5 rang for the elevator at that moment, or old comma-shaped Mr. Fayles on 9. My guess is that Eddie promised me a driving lesson for another day, and dropped me off on 3 where I belonged.
This same Eddie was the stuff of legends. Many an apocryphal tale was told about his daring antics, including the time my mother came home and found him at our piano, playing the Moonlight Sonata. George must have been on the elevator that afternoon, because Eddie surely wasn’t. And who would have guessed? The Moonlight Sonata! In fact, the strangest part of that story for me was not that Eddie was sitting at the piano in our apartment, but that he was playing Beethoven.
Living with doormen and elevator men was the urban equivalent of having a watchdog, or a good neighbor who would look out for us and keep secrets for us as we got older and our friends, savory and unsavory alike, stayed over and snuck out early in the morning before our parents woke up. George, Boris, Eddie, they gave us advice. Eddie’s was often imperfect, but otherwise the concern of these men who were not kin, who could see us without the clouded lenses of blood relatives, and who were in many cases more available than our parents, especially our fathers—this was an essential part of learning to trust.
New York was not a city known for its benevolence, though after 9/11 its heart was briefly on display. The New York I grew up in was tough, loud, combative. And for all its advertised allure, the Upper East Side had an underbelly as rough and dirty as any neighborhood. You could hear it when the bars closed and the tony clientele spilled onto the streets, shouting threats and obscenities. You could see it very early in the morning, before the doormen took to the sidewalks with their hoses and long-handled scrub brushes. You could watch the litter of fast-food containers tumbling down the avenues, or the condoms and lost gloves choking the gutters. When I was ten or twelve, walking home from school in broad daylight, a kid no bigger than a seven-year-old came out of a doorway and held a knife to my gut. I just looked at him and said, “What?” and he withdrew because really there was no answer to my question.
Growing up with a good neighbor at the front door, a champion and a watchdog, a doorman, gave me a foothold in the world I do not take for granted. Through the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Russia’s warheads were aimed at New York; through the protests, riots, assassinations and injustices of the ‘60s, something succeeded in creating a feeling of safety for me, a trust in who I was and how I would navigate the challenges presented by the decade in which I was coming of age. The world appeared more than ever a house of cards, a collapsing illusion, but something beyond the money in my pocket, my education and my whiteness, gave me the self-assurance to say to that kid on the street: What? It wasn’t just George and Boris and Eddie, but their alert and steady presence was instructive and essential at a time when air raid sirens sent us underground, when shop windows shattered, when brothers lost the lottery, went off to war and never returned. The funereal wailing of a decade did not diminish us. We had good neighbors. We had doormen.
Here in Flagstaff, my house has three bedrooms lined up one-two-three like roomettes on a train. When I moved in a year ago, I chose the front bedroom, the one facing the street, though I wasn’t sure why. It has two windows, and I like windows. Was that the reason? Not quite. It was only recently I realized I wanted to sleep at the front of the house in order to guard the house. I wanted to join the ranks of that noble profession. I wanted to be my own doorman.
Katie Bell Burton discovers trees. My sister-in-law, Grace, writes about the look on her grandmother’s face. My uncle Shep finds the beauty in a mechanical part (I have a collection of old discarded faucets for the same reason). Lucy Watson can’t resist the undeniable charms of her good friend Stanley. And Katherine Elswick gives us turquoise, tulips, and eggs. Here are their words and photos. Take a look.
Katie Bell Burton
Here’s to the Trees
When I was around 11 years old, I started wearing glasses. I didn’t realize I couldn’t see clearly until I could, and what I noticed the most was the trees. No longer a green blur, the multitude of leaves, the definition of each individual collectively formed a green silhouette against the blue sky. These trees lived on the street that I walked everyday, but I was seeing them clearly for the first time. It felt like love, so simple and light, surprising and new.
I find comfort in the cyclical nature of trees. Even when they are dormant, they provide a reminder of what’s to come. The cycle is always in motion. The brutal winter will give way to the buds of spring. The flowers of spring and summer will always come as a surprise. The falling leaves will bring reprieve from the hot summer sun.
Michigan maples are color-changing champions. One leaf can turn from a rich green to lime, lemon, and orange, dropping a rainbow sorbet of color worth picking up and saving. When I moved away from Michigan, my mom would send me a vibrant leaf in the mail to remind me of home.
I moved to Flagstaff and the first thing I noticed was the amazing smell. Deep inhalations brought a smile to my face and a sense of renewed energy. A ponderosa pine invited me to approach it, so I bumped my nose against the bark. I could almost taste the sweet smell of butterscotch. And the aspen trees were a captive audience, leaves clapping as I hiked through their tunnels.
The trees of North Carolina that surround me now are giants that dance in the swirling wind. They are surprisingly delicate and will spontaneously snap their branches or uproot, pulling an 80-foot tree right out of the ground. I’m surprised at how often a tree falls in the forest around our home. When the leaves fall, leaving these giants naked you can see what has been hiding behind them all year.
The trees continue to teach me about love, nurturing and community. They are social beings and communicate their needs to each other, which inspires me to be a better wife. Healthy trees will selflessly send nutrients to those in need. This reminds me to take good care of myself and my daughters. As a tree begins to die, it will send any remaining carbon to its loved ones in the forest, which makes me think of my ancestors and the foundation they built for me. Trees give me hope that humans can love each other so selflessly, and that we might be reminded to love them back for all they give to us.
Grace Osora Erhart
This is beauty for me.
I took a peek at my iPhone photos looking for a picture of my dogs and the spring green, and came across this photo I found while cleaning out my mother’s house. I believe it is a picture of my grandmother, my father’s mother, on her first communion, somewhere around 1915.
Suddenly just now I fell in love...I love her!
I looked into her eyes via the magic of the iPhone and was able to really get a good look at her face. Nellie was her name. I only knew her as a sad, obese woman, and with so many cousins I never even had a real conversation with her that I can recall. But here I just love her so much, she looks so hopeful and happy and I feel my heart open up to her. It’s crazy and unexpected and I didn’t even feel that way when I found the original photograph a few days ago.
So thank you for this chance to discover something I already had, someone I thought I already knew, but I suspect I knew very little.
I love your beauty challenge. I’m long on beautiful experiences, short on pictures at the moment. But here’s one that might work in your blog space, with a little haiku that it inspired.
The backstory is this gorgeous folding propeller arrived from Denmark the other day on its way to Amazing Grace (in the boatyard near your Manset house). I was so excited and wowed by its functional beauty that I plopped it on the granite kitchen counter for Linnette to behold. She was in the middle of prepping something with garlic. Here’s the little ditty that evolved.
“What’s for Suppa?”
The stove counter holds
Folding prop, garlic –
Sauteed bronze beauty!
Here is my goofy, adorable lab.
He sits in the bay window for hours looking at everyone walking by, and when we walk him, people ask, “Is this the dog(gie) in the window?”
He sometimes has his stuffed animal with him but he is mostly a solo act.
His name is Stanley. He is 5½ years old. He is an English Labrador Retriever. He has never retrieved a ball and refuses to go in the water.
I enjoy your blog so much and thank you for inviting me in.
“Aging is part of the song if life is long.” A friend told me that and I love the line.
I like natural objects that are lovely in themselves but are also “teaching” symbols for me.
This Sleeping Beauty mine turquoise has a cloud in its sky so it says Sky of Mind to me...passing cloud selves, empty sky. Also...sleeping beauties must WAKE UP. And it is in a little stone boat...the dogma one you let go of when you “reach the other shore.”
This deep feeling color of twolips...this deer shadow...this wood shine....
But for the pungent dog poop that lay in a frozen state all winter and came alive as the sidewalks heated up, May was a glorious time in New York City. It was my favorite month of school because we spent so little of it at school. There was Field Day, an entire day when we got to run around like hooligans on Randalls Island, hurling softballs at one another and competing in the 100-yard dash. There were class trips to the Cloisters, to the hall of mummies at the Metropolitan Museum. But as memorable as those were, nothing measured up to the trip to one of the more unlikely places in Manhattan. This was a place intended to ignite a spark of what? passion for learning? in a gang of chattering first-graders? What mortal minds concocted such a plan, I’ll never know, but 62 years later, while I can’t remember the name of the woman next door who likes the same music I do, I clearly remember that day at the Fulton Fish Market.
In their own words: Opened in 1822, New York City’s Fulton Fish Market is one of the oldest fish markets in the United States. Well before the Brooklyn Bridge was even built, the market at South Street Seaport thrived with fishing boats and fishmongers bartering and bantering over stalls heaving with fresh fish. Each night the colorful market would come to life with its cast of characters, eager chefs and curious tourists, all mingling over bushels of oysters, crates of lobsters and a kaleidoscope of sea creatures from near and far. Perhaps more than any other institution, the Fulton Fish Market captured the spirit and tradition of old New York.
I feel a warmth around my heart just reading that paragraph. Stalls heaving with fresh fish. Fishmongers bartering and bantering. Something in my body remembers the temperature of that day, the smelly warmth of the market, the cool of the ice, the noise, the hawking, the very New York entrepreneurial buzz, the accents and flavors of the city, all overwhelming to an Uptown kid in a blue school uniform. I remember the ordinary fish I carried home on the school bus in a neat white package and delivered to my mother. I remember her expression as she thanked me. It was the look of someone who loved me and understood the importance of the gift, never mind that the fish and its ice had parted long hours before.
Was this the lesson, where my mother’s love and an overripe fish came together to create in me a thirst for the world? Or was it the passion of the fishmongers, the shouting and colorful tangle of the senses that let me know learning was limitless, that it took every form imaginable? When Shakespeare came along, I could picture Capulets and Montagues duking it out at the Fulton Fish Market, and the fair Cordelia leaning over a basket of raw shrimp. When Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar, he did so not in the Curia of Pompey, but in the Fulton Fish Market. With my own eyes I’d seen the stain of the emperor’s blood on the ground between a case of red snapper and the lobster pool. When Pythagoras offered up his theorem, the hypotenuse was always the Brooklyn Bridge hanging over the East River that day at the market. And when we studied the Revolutionary War, the fishmongers were the ones who showed up with ice picks and gutting knives to turn back the British at the mouth of New York harbor. Make no mistake, George Washington’s private militia was made up of these men, these ordinary bantering bartering men in blood-stained aprons and high rubber boots. These men who could set your imagination on fire. These men who could sell you a fish.
We are recognizable by our green hair and wandering tan lines, by our distinctive odor nicknamed eau de chlorine. Without our daily fix we are crazed. Our hands shake, our knees jiggle. We are swimming pool junkies waiting for lap hours.
We’ve seen it all—fistfights and shouting matches in crowded lanes where circle swimming is required. Someone in the intermediate area is sent back to the slow lane. Or there’s a thrasher, a guy who hasn’t yet mastered the strokes, and if you pair with him in his lane he’s apt to whack you on the head. Or jab you with his foot. He’s all over the map and that violates the unspoken rules of the natatorium. Swimmers like tidiness, efficiency. That’s why we commit the sporty hours of our lives to the fixed geometry of lap lanes. We immerse ourselves in the rectangular waters of a pool. We follow a fixed line on the pool’s silky bottom. We sandwich ourselves between plastic buoys that keep us in our own world, far from the business of everyone else, and there we finally relax and just swim.
I learned to swim in my grandmother’s pool in New Jersey. Summers in the Garden State were so hot our bodies literally ached for water, and there it was every morning, that beautiful cool blue rectangle of chlorine, awaiting our joyful whoops and cannonballs and ichthyic underwater acrobatics. We were tadpoles one minute and frogs the next. We were whales breaching, flounder flapping along the rough pool bottom. Our hair was green, our sunburned skin turned from red to brown. When we reluctantly stepped out of the pool at the end of the day the water flew off us in scintillating drops. We looked like we were shedding diamonds.
I didn’t swim again, not with the same passion and attention I had as a kid, until I found myself in Arizona in the mid-seventies. Maybe it was the unfamiliar waterlessness of the Southwest that made my body thirst for a pool. Maybe it was my friend Lew’s suggestion that I count the laps, 36 to a mile. Once I got going there was no stopping me. I swam in Prescott and Camp Verde. I swam in Cottonwood in an ancient trapezoidal pool that had the effect of merging traffic in the shallow end. Bodies bumped against one another and jostled for room to do flip turns. It went against all swimming etiquette but was, in fact, a pleasant meeting of underwater skin.
I made a point of visiting places known for their pools. I took to the water in Hemingway’s chilly outdoor pool in Key West; the YWCA’s clothing optional pool in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a pool in an abandoned convent in Santa Barbara, with a pool deck tiled like the Baths of Caracalla. I swam alone in an Olympic-size pool north of Bangkok, and a frog-filled pool in Mandalay. At a Zen monastery in California’s Ventana Wilderness, I swam daily in a pool warmed by hot springs. Later I became the keeper of that pool, the skimmer of leaves, rescuer of bees.
Ocean swims, lake swims, river swims. These are all acceptable to swimming pool junkies but they’re not the glory we live for. Oh, those traversers of the English Channel, the Bering Strait. What strange compulsion drives them to such uncomfortable extremes? The terrible cold, the energy delivered through a feeding tube, the lonely vigil in the dark, the terror of traffic in the shipping lanes, the absence of direction out there in the vast beyond. They move between countries, continents, with the same strokes that deliver me to the far side of the pool. What different destinations! What unimaginable desires!
Only once did I sign on to an ocean swim, an event to raise money during the AIDS epidemic. Our course wasn’t long, a mile-and-a-half, but it was mid-September and the water was chilly. I was one mile in, my core noticeably cooling, when I heard the scream of another swimmer. She was slightly behind me when she yelled, Shark! I turned and there was the unmistakable fin circling her.
It was, I later learned, a harmless species called a nurse shark. Still, that put an end to my ocean distance swimming. In lakes and rivers I’m similarly afraid a fish will brush my leg. But in the pool, antiseptic and chlorinated, chemicalized to an otherworldly hue, the monsters of the deep exist only within me, and that’s what I’m there for. I swim to shake them off.
Impossibly, one Christmas my mother gave me a raccoon coat. It was not a new coat, but neither was it the worse for wear. The fur, or pelt might be a more accurate word, was not moth-eaten or sorry looking, if a bit dull, and my mother had replaced the entire lining with the same brilliant blue fabric that covered our living room chairs. She had rebuilt the coat from the inside and she presented it to me that Christmas, the Christmas I was twelve, with a beam of pride that broke my heart. Because the last thing in the world I wanted was to walk out into the jungle of New York City and through the doors of my school wearing a bunch of dead animals on my body. The last thing I wanted was a raccoon coat.
I thanked my mother profusely, overdoing it to cover my shame. It was the shame of ingratitude, the anticipatory shame of arriving as I must in front of 610 East 83rd Street, my school, and being the laughing stock, the butt of the joke, the blushing target of everyone’s unmerciful teasing. Juanita Dugdale had worn a modest fur hat to school one day and for that she was crucified. I knew the consequences and my mother did not. Her plan was to save me in style in those cold New York winters but in fact she was throwing me to the wolves.
My older sister’s best friend Kate was the first to land a dart. She looked me up and down and smiled dangerously as we stood at the bus stop together. “Height of prep,” was all she said. I remember the sting of it to this day. But I was grateful for the efficiency, the brevity of her blow. Others were not so reserved, or rather not so accurate in the delivery of their poison arrows, and several seemed genuinely confused as to whether or not the coat was made from our own pet raccoon, Mr. Peepers, who had come and gone in our lives several years before. I came home from school and stood as I always did in front of the cracker and potato chip closet above the built-in oven in our kitchen, and cried. I had not even bothered to take off the coat and I stood and hung my head and blubbered into the scratchy fur that came up to meet my face. Here it was, this hideous coat with its beautiful, elegant, blue as the blue sky lining, hand-sewn by my beautiful, elegant mother, and I had to choose. I had to either bear the shame or refuse the gift which at that moment felt like refusing the gift of life which she had also given me. With all its difficulties and uglinesses I hadn’t refused that gift, had I? the gift of life? It was difficult and complicated, even hideous at times, but I had chosen to concentrate on life’s beautiful blue lining and now, I decided right there in the kitchen, I would do that again.
How is it possible not to feel somewhat in love with spring? A friend says: allergies. Another says: the fickle weather. Another: too much rampaging sap, in humans too, leaving us cranky and exhausted. This year, as I feel the minutes slide through my fingers at a speed I never noticed before, what dampens my love of this season, a season that thrilled me even as a kid, is the understanding that it is a season of loss. We think of autumn that way, with its dying back of life and light, but spring is the season of change, and change—impermanence—is the essence of loss. Every blossom blown by the wind in or out of my yard is a tumble from a kind of biblical grace, a transformation of landscape, a movement along the path to inevitable autumn. I want to stand at the gate and shout, “Slow down! Don’t move! Give that back!” Give me a minute to breathe it all in before it turns into something else.
So the outrageous beauty gets lost under a veil of dissatisfaction, and I look up and wonder where the spring went, how it got away.
I’ve learned a trick to capture life before it passes. The trick of writing came to me when I was still a very young kid. I kept a diary, kept it safe with a feeble lock and key, and in it I recorded the day’s events--disgusting fried eggs for breakfast; Miss Allison gives too much homework! Lots of exclamation points and revelations about foods I didn’t like. Then storytelling came to me. Better than the lock and key, it kept brothers out of my business. I disguised everything, absorbed myself in three-line fictions. If a day had gone badly—and they began to when I was twelve—I simply rewrote the events as they should have occurred and felt cleansed of all the messy parts of my personality. I took what had passed and transformed it.
Years later, when I no longer needed to do that, I understood the difference between storytelling in order to hide, and fiction as a vehicle for truth. Truth, and by close observation, a means to slow down and savor this life around us and in us, the torture and rapture both. When I write I am never dissatisfied. I am occupied and almost emotionless. The emotion arrives when I am done, like being released from the pull of a powerful eddy. There are times when there is no room for anything but what is right here, and those times are precious, rare. They lend energy and a quality of deep interestingness to everything we are and do. There is no gain or loss, no time or season passing. Complete absorption releases the mind and body. It allows us not to think things through but instead to follow the lead of something that has already arrived at our destination. What we create in those times has a quality of smoothness and ease. A quality of unthought shines through.
See if that doesn’t strike you here in a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’ve been working at this book for close to a month. I finished it just minutes ago and the passage I wanted to record for its smoothness, truthfulness and ease lands about ten pages from the end. It’s speaking about Paul D’s attempted escapes from slavery to freedom:
“And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its graveyards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.”
Wonderful, isn’t it? A personal sky, weak with the weight of its own stars? I can feel that. And even if you’ve never seen a certain light hitting a certain mule, you can picture it. There it is, right in front of you, smooth and easy. And that chinaberry tree? I have chinaberries in my own yard. They blossom early, the palest pink. They send out the first invitation to sink into the temporary glory or shield myself with dissatisfaction. This season, which will it be? How hard will I try not to love it?
Walt has called upon his three good friends to make him a coffin. “I’ve never died before,” he says. “I’m not sure how to do it. But I’ll need a coffin.”
The four good friends go together to Walt’s woodshop to pick out the boards. They’re looking for cedar, and as they search through the lumber Walt reminds them they don’t need to nail or peg or screw the coffin together, they can just use glue. One of the good friends, Mark, doesn’t like that idea. It’s practical, he says, but a coffin isn’t about being practical, it’s about respect. It’s about being respectful and giving someone a good-looking send-off, the one they deserve.
A sweet-smelling send-off, says Joe, pressing his nose to the cedar.
Otherwise, says Andrew, we’d just wrap you up in a sheet.
They find the boards they want and load them into the truck. Mark’s dog Spud, part beagle, part dachshund, part whirling dervish, stands up tall in the back. Time for a lie-down, says Walt, and off they go, dog ears flapping in the wind.
I wasn’t part of this story. I was only the ears to hear it. But who can’t picture it? The four friends, Walt, Mark, Joe and Andrew, enacting the rituals of friendship, so close to kinship at times. When there are tasks to do, they do them. When there are feelings to express, they find their way to them. Kindness isn’t a word they’re comfortable with, but they know about giving.
I picture Mark planing the wood for his friend’s last enclosure. He’s old-school and he’ll use pegs and Walt will be pleased with the look of that. Though suddenly he wonders if his friend will come and see the coffin before he’s placed inside it. Maybe it’s bad luck, he thinks. Maybe it’s not so different than the wedding-day custom of not seeing your bride, not until you lift her veil at the altar. That always seemed silly, old-fashioned. Did anyone do that anymore? But coffins are old-fashioned. They have six sides, they’re not easy to make. A casket only has four. No one even says the word “coffin” in these modern times. It’s a word that frightens people, it reminds them of death. Yet it means “little basket.” Mark likes that. He’s making Walt’s little basket. Walt is losing a pound a day and suddenly Mark wonders if he should go and measure him. He doesn’t want the coffin to make his friend look small or insubstantial. He planes away, thinking about Walt and the fish they’ve chased and sometimes caught, and their mutual love of boats and, he’d have to say, yes, wood. The grain of the wood. And especially this wood. It curls away beneath his hands and he thinks again of all he doesn’t know about the customs of death, and how he, like Walt, doesn’t know how to do his own dying. But he’s learning. With every sweep of the plane, he’s learning. They’re all learning, and right now, because Walt’s going first, they’re learning from Walt.
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