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A Glorious Tangle

IMAG0660My beach.

Hard to recognize it as beach, these days. Granted, this is the most grown-in spot. The small creek that drains the swamps behind us comes out here, cutting a green path through the sandy bank between woods and waves. By late summer the stream mostly dries up; but after the heavy rains we had the first week of September it was once again flowing freely, dropping in a series of miniature waterfalls to join the waters of the Bay.
While this is the greenest spot, all of my beach is growing in. Sometimes I mourn the loss of bare sand and stones—of “real” beach. The other day, though, I paused at this spot and started thinking, wondering: How many plants are growing right here, within arm’s length? Within a step or two?

I decided to investigate. I got a measuring tape and four sticks and staked out a small plot, four feet by four feet, right at the edge of the water. And then I looked inside.

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Wild asters.

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Peppermint (the purple flower), surrounded by something else. (?)

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More mint and asters, silverweed (the short, leafy plant that looks a bit like strawberry—it has bright yellow flowers in the spring), Baltic rushes and a wild tangle of roots, exposed by the waves.

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Grass-leaved goldenrod (I think).

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The segmented, reedy-looking plants are scouring rushes. As kids we used to pluck one now and then and pretend to smoke it (the tiny cone on the tip looks a bit like the ash on a cigarette.)

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In my four-by-four plot I also found a bit of Queen Anne’s lace, a second variety of goldenrod, a small purple flower I’ve not yet identified and something that looked like a willow. All together I could distinguish thirteen different plants; I’m sure a trained eye could identify more. A few steps away, higher on the bank there are growing several kinds of grasses, two or three varieties of thistle, beach pea and even a few white pine seedlings.

It can be easy to fall into the habit of thinking of all of this growth, sprouted up in the last decade or so, as a nuisance. The twisting roots and dense foliage make it hard to walk the shoreline in many places, and leave precious little space to spread out a towel or set down a few beach chairs.

But framing the picture differently (literally reframing it, using my artificial four-by-four boundaries), looking in and peering closer, I see things in a new way, appreciating the incredible variety of living things at the water’s edge. As if to emphasize the point, while I was crouched there with my notebook a fat bumblebee came by and stopped momentarily in my study plot,

A glorious tangle.

Behold the Cat

Behold the cat

Sitting on high as befits her.

She gazes out at the room,

Then thoughtfully licks a paw.

I hurry for nothing, she seems to say,

For no one.

She is hardly less regal reclining

Looking over her shoulder where a mosquito might be buzzing

Against the glass of the sliding door.

She jumps down

And when she chirps to herself

As she walks across the room

Out to the kitchen where I hear her crunching kibble

I have no doubt:

She has an inner life I am not privy to

Thoughts of a sort I can’t share

A world of her own, an existence

In which I am only an observer.

Behold the cat.

Birdsong

There were thunderstorms last night, and this morning I crack the slider open to find it’s like a steam bath outside, even at 5 a.m. Everything is soaking wet, but that doesn’t faze the birds—I hear them chirping. They always start so early. How do they know dawn is coming? Do they see it with keener eyes than mine? Feel something, some subtle change in the air that signals the approach of day? Or do they just know, deep inside, before the fact and in the darkness, begin to sing?

I wish I were a bird sometimes. That my mouth could open every morning that I live and bring forth a song, no matter the storms of the night before or the rain to come.

Oh that we all could be birds.

╬╬╬

An old friend of mine died recently. She nursed her husband for several years while he battled cancer; then he died, a few months ago. After taking her cats to a shelter and writing a note, she took an overdose. Just days after hearing the news, shock begins to give way to realization and I struggle to understand. I think about life force. How strong it is, and yet how sometimes, it just quits. Fails. Ends.

I think of the birds, how relentlessly they greet the day. I read that they do have something deep inside, telling them morning is arriving: a circadian clock, the biological system that keeps track of time. The clock is so good that in experiments, even in a closed and soundproof room kept at a constant dimness a rooster will reliably crow before dawn. Humans have circadian clocks too; we are also naturally attuned to the rhythms of the day and night, the seasons. But we answer to other calls, worries, fears, ambitions; and we have the ability to contemplate ourselves. We have intellect. I wonder about intellect, and the act of self-comtemplation. I wonder if it’s overrated, sometimes.

But then again, we’re not the only animals that can lose the will to live. I read about lambs once, that if you bring a lamb into your house to nurse it through sickness or if it’s lost its mother, you have to get it back out again soon, back to the barnyard. Otherwise it will bond with you so firmly that you can’t put it back, the separation will be too much. It won’t eat, it will just fade and die. As the nursery song says: wherever Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

The bonds that tie us to each other and to life are so powerful, and yet so tenuous. I think of “living things” as having vitality, vigor; and if not always thriving then at least struggling to survive, persisting. The way weeds sprout up in the cracks in the pavement. But as I mourn my friend I see we’re also delicate, life as we know it is so fragile: a whisper, a blade of grass, a quaver of bird song.

A paradox: the inevitability of dawn and the attendant singing of birds, the fragility of those liquid notes, hanging on the air.

Swimming

Following the path beside the river, no wider than a game trail, we’ve been threading our way through the undergrowth, so quickly erupted after the long winter. Today it’s hot: instant, green summer.

We cross a swath of meadow behind the public works yard, then the trail ahead disappears again into a screen of leafy growth. I hear voices; and I wait, out in the open where there is more room to pass, for their owners.

They appear before us: four boys, tall and muscled but not men, yet. Dripping wet, in swim trunks. Standing there like fish (if fish could stand), nothing with them, no towels, or packs. I do not notice, in the tall grass, if they’re wearing shoes.

“Do you guys know where this trail goes?” the tallest, in front, asks us.

“It just goes along the river,” I reply, “up to the bridge, where the bike path comes in.”

“We just found the most awesome swimming spot,” he says, and his friends make sounds of assent.

“Dude, I want to go back in the river,” one of them says. His brown hair is plastered smooth and seal-like on his head, framing his face, just skimming his eyes.

“Oh there are lots of places along here you could swim,” Sally puts in. We have been stopping here and there along the trail for views: of the rapids when we heard them through the trees, but also quiet, green pools where mallards rest and I think there must be fish. Half an hour ago when we came to the place where the river takes a big bend and there is a wide, beach-like curve of sand and gravel, I told Sally I was tempted to wade in. But I didn’t. It seemed like too much hassle, taking off my shoes and socks, then having to pull them onto my wet feet before we went on.

Sally elaborates a bit about the trail, where it links to the bike path, the spur that goes to the cider mill. Then she asks, “Where are you headed?”

“We’re not headed anywhere,” the leader says. His voice is nevertheless purposeful, energetic. “We’re having an adventure!”

They move off, along the path in the direction from which we’ve just come, bare-skinned, dripping, open-handed. We plunge into the shadow of the trees and brush, following the last piece of trail before the parking lot. As we head back to the car, Sally says she envies them, a little. I say, that water must feel pretty cold… But I envy them too. And I wonder if I have ever been that young.

Faith

I’m often stuck in a mire of indecision. I’m just one of those people who agonizes. I saw something on TV the other day that suggested this is a female trait, and that women lack confidence in part because of our hormones. I don’t know about that, if I’m awash in the wrong chemicals, but I’m certainly awash in doubt. It seems to me the struggle is not only to “do the right thing,” but to figure out what that is in the first place.

Last week I reached out to someone I’ve long been estranged from. A woman at church mentioned she wasn’t sure what to do about a cousin who’d fallen out with her, over politics and religion. She recently heard that her cousin is seriously ill. I said, go for it, get in touch. And then I went home and realized I needed to take my own advice.

So after a day of mulling over what I might say I sat down, gathered my thoughts, took a few deep breaths and dialed the number still in my cell phone. Voicemail picked up and I heard a voice I haven’t heard in a while—years, actually. Awkward as I felt, and with my own voice jumping all over the place, I left my message. I know it’s been a while, but I thought maybe we could go for coffee… Call me… Hope all’s well.

When I signed off and stood up, I was shaking.

It’s a long history I have with this person, and even with all that shared past I don’t know what is next, can’t see the future. We’re limited beings, with limited vision, every one of us. We stumble through, stumble into light sometimes, other times knock around in the dark, in the basement, bumping into things, scraping our shins and swearing.

Sometimes you just hang on and hope for better days. And sometimes you hitch up your pants, gather your courage, take a deep breath and make a move. And hope that you’re doing that right thing, the thing that somehow will make a difference. I think this is faith: if not the meaning of it, then the experience. Sometimes it’s all we have.

Bones

Deep in the woods lately hidden under snow there are secrets that spring gives up, brings to light. Still half-covered in the buff and fawn of old leaves, ringed by the green and purple teeth of new skunk cabbage, I find the bones of a deer, long leg bones long lain here, the gentle curve of ribs beside them, soft, bright ivory against brown.

I knew they would be here, somewhere. I found the skull several years ago, a dozen yards away, just the other side of the foot bridge across a stream so small it will be mostly dry by August. It was only a matter of taking the moment’s opportunity to leave the path and look, study the ground for the telltale flash of white that’s more than just a bare branch lying on the ground.

Today I looked, and so I found them. I’ve become quite good at finding bones in the spring, but I think it’s mostly just that: I look for them. I look for them because I like to see, because the sight of them seems a clue the seasons heave up to me, about the nature of life and death, the circle that can seem cruel or sad and always remains a mystery.

That mystery was with me yesterday too, I realize now, as a woman stood before me, the poet at the writers’ conference, and said she’d had to take a nap in her car in between giving lectures because ever since she started chemo, she gets so tired. And then she turned on the overhead projector and began to talk to us about memoir. I kept thinking how vital and alive and strong she was.

Here in the woods I contemplate death as in a still life, easy, poetic; at a distance created by time and circumstance and species. I have lived and seen enough to know death does not look so picturesque, visited upon us in hospitals, on death beds, construction sites, in cars, lying on the floor.

And yet… These bones lying so long, so many seasons covered over in snow and then in green (the skull, I noted today, is now growing moss) have something powerful to tell me. Revealed in this brief time of bare earth after frost heaves and just receded snow, they show me the cycle itself is beautiful. I can see it, here where the deer left its body; the bones have now become another pattern barely distinguishable from the rest, the leaves and twigs and nut shells, the seed cases and bark peelings and old shreds of grasses, walked upon by beetles, turned over under their feet.

Somehow it comforts me to know we’re all going back here. Dust to dust—words, but here I find the picture: the bright, sharp green of the skunk cabbage blade dipped in purple, beside a scattering of rib. Literally entwined.

I wonder if I will hear the poet speak again. I think she must wonder too, how many more times it will be given her to speak, how many more poems it will be given her to write. We don’t know. The mystery is how life and death complete and make each other. Somehow the bones lying beside the creek in the first burst of spring help me accept that it’s not given to me, to understand.

A Poem

April is National Poetry month, and coincidentally I wrote:

A Poem

I know a couple of old women
They have such sharp edges
Perhaps it is harder than I think, getting old.

My grandmothers weren’t like that
Stern, sometimes; but gentle
How I miss them.

Especially Leah
I remember how she held me in her lap
Carefully
Like we were both a little fragile.

She read to me from children’s books
About gardens, and God
I didn’t care what the books were about
I heard God
And a garden flowering
In my grandmother’s voice.

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