Nostalgia

Dreamscape in a fog.

Women in sweaters and long skirts walk through an uncultivated pasture in the fog, above a lake.  They retreat from the lens, toward something else. No one speaks.

Now comes a car on a nearby road. It takes a moment to stop. A woman gets out. The light reminds her of autumn. The man from the driver’s seat corrects her speech. I cried the first time I saw it, she says. He will not come.

I will wait for you, she says. She roams away like this often, in stubborn wonder. He follows, eventually. By the time he catches up, she will no longer be the woman from the car. By the time he catches her, she will be a woman who has been walking alone on a dirt path for some time.

***

Inspired by the work of Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky, and specifically his film, Nostalgia.

Wing

In the aftermath of fracture.

When the stone sky locks the angels out, who watches for the saints beneath a daily march, crunching underfoot? Grains of sand, listen: which of your every has ears? Without compass or clock, I can answer only, no, I do not know the way or have the time; please resist the impulse to make me a metaphor. Put down your pen and help me look. It was all in a pocket under this wing, along with a spare key to the late morning blue. We were supposed to practice today, scales of light and choreography of chroma, and I had soft branches to buttress the round of the new nest. The babies–– It’s cold enough to see it in the air when I call and here it is again, this cry, I am.

Vigil

Protection begins with attention.

Remember the bridled white eye, with his tiny spectacles, who seemed always to be offering an arch look to punctuate a well-placed question. As in, what are you doing?

Or Bachman’s warbler, who once knew the damp floors of the dense forest? Remember the Kauai akialoa, with his flourish of long bill, hooked like the edge of the reaper’s scythe, and the honeycreeper that once set her eggs in cup-shape nests. Remember the little Mariana fruit bat, the flying fox slowly poisoned by DDT in cycad seeds.

Careful! A mother calls after a child, ever reckless with living and ignorant of possibilities for being snuffed out. Watch! Watch out!

The Scioto madtom once fed on the bottoms of graveled streams in central Ohio. The upland combshell mussel could only produce with enough space in the clean waters of an undisturbed riverbed, with fish enough for hosting the young. The blade horned chameleon of Tanzania’s old growth forest darkens its skin under stress. It wraps its tail around a tree branch and hangs on. 

Hold tight! she calls.

The Pacific bluefin tuna are often caught before they can breed. 

Hurry, hurry!

The North American bumblebee made its home in the eastern grasslands now plowed for corn and its attendant poisons.

Watch out!

How easy it is to lose what isn’t watched. Among the African elephants, the matriarchs will slow their pace so a calf can keep stride. A cheetah will move her litter every few days to keep predators off the scent. An alligator will hold her babies in her mouth to protect them from being eaten by another.

She is watching out a window, through a screen. She is watching the sky, the temperature, the poisons, the electrical outlets, the latest reports. What do you know? She will ask, sometimes. Waking to check that her young are still breathing, waking to number the threats, count the fires, track the melting ice and the coming war, to calculate the timing of her next move, and wonder, how? Her song is silent like the watch she keeps over the lives of the living, so easily and recklessly lost.

***

This post was inspired by a sobering look at the report, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Proposes Delisting 23 Species from Endangered Species Act Due to Extinction. This on the morning after an American holiday in which it is fashionable to offer thanks for what is solidly in hand. The juxtaposition of the report and this moment have me imagining how the notion of gratitude might be expanded to include grief over what was once had, but then lost, and vigilance over what remains, teetering precariously and often invisibly between here and gone.

Beasts of Burden

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids?

There’s the pulled thread that unravels the sweater, the drop that spills the drink, tiny as a tear, long held.

That’s the thing with tears. Once they start––

There’s the camel that wins “Best in Show” despite a backache, whose keeper, in celebration, announces, “Watch this!” and adds one more thing, so light it seems impossible that any beast accustomed to carrying so much would feel it.

I heard they aren’t very smart. That they have to be led to food. That they––

Of course. You can’t make a creature a beast of burden if you are distracted by its intelligence. The keepers need to believe that they have it all figured out. The keepers need to believe that the camel is fulfilled in their service, that they would be just wandering around, lost and starving, without them. 

I heard they have three sets of eyelids.

And two rows of lashes. They can even close their nostrils against the sand.

Legend has it, they were acquired as spoils of conquest.

Or as gifts, to demonstrate wealth, as such creatures often are. Poets called them the ships of the desert.

Bodies repurposed as vessels, ambitious men could use them, whenever they meant to traverse land they were not prepared to walk. Arriving safely, they would claim victory, tell stories of the journey, and feel magnanimous for leading the ignorant beasts to food.

Then they’d eat them, right?

The carriers had tough meat, but they produced good milk. Better to eat the young.

I heard the mothers will mourn.

Yes, but the keepers, assuming stupidity, will stuff the skin of a slaughtered youth with straw and place it before the mother. She will smell her young. Then they find another small one. She will give the other small one her milk. If the other small one dies, both mothers will mourn. 

Have you ever seen the size of the eyes behind those layered lids? They are as large as half my face!

Don’t tell me she didn’t see. Don’t tell me she didn’t understand that if she could close them against the sandstorm that would blind her she didn’t know to do the same thing when she sniffed the stuffed body before her. Don’t tell me a creature whose role is bearing what others can’t carry will suddenly stop, as if it just occurred to them that doing so was an option.

Not even to die? What about the last straw?

You ever see one die, except when slaughtered? You don’t, you just find the bones. 

What happens, then?

The heart breaks, then the body, and finally the back gives out.   

Then what?

They keep walking. If they can shut their eyes against looking, they can stop their legs from stopping, even into death. 

They keep walking?

They keep walking and they turn into ghosts.

I’ve heard stories.

No one ever sees the body give out.

These ghost camels, they walk at night, still with the packs on their backs. One day someone finds the bones.

Then what?

 What do people ever do with bones? 

Decorate? Grind them into powder, make glue?

Exactly. To hold things together. To strengthen the body.

Medicine, also?

Strengthening, healing, you name it. They use the bones against the breaking, and keep on.

What We Miss When We’re Not Looking

We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  

This is a story about loss and healing, adapted from a story I read in the Salem News earlier this week.

God forbid, Mary would think, at the slightest thought of cat against car. She would take off her own shirt, wrap the body, clutch it to her chest. Use her own mouth as needed. A soft toothbrush would be better, to mimic the mother’s tongue. She would rock and hold and hum, use a dropper to feed if she had to, until well.

But when Max disappeared, there was no body, only an open screen, as if to say, here is the trace of love leaving, and it reminded her back to similar spaces, too many to count. The cool side of the bed, the left-behind toys, the unnecessary landline that only solicitors called, which she kept active anyway, just in case.

Max, she called. Max! He did not come. She called every shelter, even a pet psychic. She walked the neighborhood. She drove the surrounding neighborhoods.  She looked differently at every bush, every alley and drainpipe, gulley and ditch.

Phonecall, phonecall, phonecall. Hour, hour, day. Weeks, then months. Then it was years. An ache like that will swallow a person whole unless they find something else to do with it.

She found some others with similar aches, needing someplace to put them. They went about finding the lost kittens. They brushed them with toothbrushes, wrapped them in clean towels, bottle fed them until they could eat. They paired them with the mother cats who had lost their babies. They took in dogs, too. A few birds. They took in so many that they needed a bigger space. They became an organization, a shelter, an adoption center, a rescue for animals and each other. 

Max, by the way, came back. This was six years later. He had fleas in his ear but was otherwise fine. 

I can’t help but wonder how much good would never have happened if Max hadn’t decided to go and stay missing when he did. About all the littles that would have died in the elements, undiscovered, if no one was looking with such an ache. Or about all the lonely people wandering without any place to put their dangerous aches, becoming dangers to themselves and others. All that needed saving, left untended. All the answers to other questions, left undiscovered without the first one, Where is Max?

The pleas of others that might have been missed, except that someone was listening in earnest, for answers to their own.  I’m reminded how often I’ve been moved by loss and heartbreak, into places I would otherwise never have found.  I suspect that much of the visible light in others is a function of what escapes through the breaks.

If Max had not returned, this would still be a redemption story, but I wouldn’t know it. Not because there wasn’t a shelter created after he left, but because the creation of the shelter was something long and slow, and not the sort of event that lends itself to a story in the news. A disaster works for a story, if not its aftermath. Same with a sudden victory. The essentials are there – who, what, where, and when, at least, if not why. 

Growth in numbers is a news story. But numbers are abstractions, not living things. When it comes to the healing and growth of living things and human creations, sometimes there is only a why, to begin with. Who, what, where, when – these emerge over time, and they tend to be diffuse, influenced by many people, doing many things, in numerous places and ways, over and across time, slowly, in ways that are neither sudden nor singular nor dramatic. In fact, if you show up looking for something on which to report, in any given growth area, what you find may look like nothing at all.  Loving patience is a practice, and as such it is almost never a happening. Loving patience is what allows the living to grow and heal. We need healing more than ever now, in many ways. How often we are pushed to forget what this means.  The question is ever, What’s Happening?  and the answers we tend to find in response tend to be the ones that have us perpetually missing the greater possibilities in a given moment. 

Real growth and real change is slow work, and often looks like nothing to report. Unless you look hard and long, the way only someone with a full or aching heart will do, unable to stop.

The story that inspired this post can be found here. I’ve taken liberties with names, backgrounds, and imaginative elements, as appropriate for my wondering purposes. 

What They Said While They Were Leaving

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.

Artist Paul Klee, who died on this day in 1940, often invoked a childlike perspective when addressing matters of life and death. I’ve long loved the angels he painted, full of flaws and worries, trapped in human-like, sometimes animalistic forms. This morning I was looking at one of his last works, “Death and Fire” and the timing of this happens to coincide with my review of a book Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death, by Lisa Smartt. I bought it years ago. Thinking of a character was my official reason, but the interests of a character are always covers for the questions we carry. I pulled it out again today, because I have a character facing death, and I am struck by the inherent playfulness of so many of the last words recorded in Smartt’s accounts, culled from documentation of many hospice patients over time.  There’s a sense of play in the voices of many of the dying, even at the “most serious” moment in life. I am always drawn to those for whom seeming opposites can coexist in the same space: joy and pain; life and death; wonder and heartache.

Death and Fire by Paul Klee, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The following are notes assembled partly from found phrases in the book and online, considering what people say as they are leaving:

Time to move some boxes, one said.
Another claimed he was missing a passport, unable to fly.
One claimed to be the master of his fate, the captain of his soul, 
then called Bullshit! and left.
One asked for chocolate shavings on her tongue. 
Another, a cigarette. Pancakes with whipped cream.

Then come the metaphors. Listen.
Get ready for the big dance!
Lots of new construction over there!
Magic time: watch me disappear!
See the little duckies now, lining up.
They are setting the table now.

The ones who saw it as a battle went hardest.
Another dreamt of being surrounded by crows. 
It’s a murder! he said, laughing.

Some heard music, exclamations of wonder.
So many people! Can you tell me where the platform is?
Can you get the door for me?
Where do you want me to put these boxes?
Next stop, real hope! Look, they left the ladder.

Some saw butterflies, the number eight, the color green.
Others said nothing, but reached with their arms, up and out,
eloquent as infants in their expressions of need.

Who is This For? (Part 3)

Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere.

Who is this for?  

Those who have known the anguish of caring, and the terror of an all-consuming love. Who have sometimes been terrified by the range and volume of other emotions, identified as harbored within themselves, ready to erupt.

Who have been moved near weeping on occasion, at the flow of a good pen, or at the way that someone had the patience to slice grapes, one by one, in tiny circles and half-moons, for folding into a family-style dinner salad, offered to strangers. Who need art with a hunger often sharper than the need for food. Who don’t understand how anyone can find any level of emotional display actually shocking, because even if they practice restraint fastidiously, with the faith of an earnest devotee, they know how close they are, at any moment, to losing it all.

Who cry in witness to beauty, with the sheer relief of finding someone who cares enough to look long and hard, taking it in, who even in the satisfaction of some total consummation with divinity, chooses not to stop in the afterglow, but returns to the ache, caring enough to look long and hard–– to offer it back up, all of it, to anyone looking.

“Shelter” by Mark Kidsley on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Genericlicense. 

People who can remember or imagine a circus tent on fire, and the terror of the blocked entrance. Those who look at the exit signs long and often, and also at the sky.

People who lose things: cats, dogs, loves, ideas, directions, the name of the song they are always almost having, on the tips of their ever-licking tongues. People who find things, too. Especially broken and lost bits of others, waiting on the ground underfoot.

Those who hold babies. Those who avoid holding the offered babies, for fear that the heart will shatter too loudly. The babies and the former babes––and the very old, so close to death that nothing but the wide lens will do. Or the magnifying glass, to study the favorite wrinkles fanning out, like bird wings spreading around the corner of beloved eyes.

Those needing shelter. Those who know to offer it when needed, even when they don’t know how. Those hiding scars and recent wounds, and those who know how to recognize the wounded, everywhere. Anyone familiar with the sense of their own eyes floating behind them, up and over like a kite, looking down.

Who know the ache of hearing a musical phrase so expansive, familiar, and hauntingly rich that they want to climb inside and live in its space until time evaporates.

As I began to understand that there would be no end to the list, and no reason to work towards one, I decided to pause, with an intention to revisit it from time to time, as with certain records, occasional prayers, and pilgrimages, as a reminder back to some original impulse for finding shelter in a strange land.

I’ll Meet You at the Lost and Found

I’m seeing these lost parts everywhere. In the mirror and on everyone I pass.

*I’m working with new constraints this week, aiming to limit these posts to being conceived and done in an hour or less, with means writing no more than 15-30 minutes, to allow time for finding ideas, posting, images, etc. One of my go-to places to look for ideas is the lost and found section on Craigslist. I’ve done this before in an earlier post. Today’s exercise was infused with some thoughts I’ve been having lately, about what happens to unshed grief.

I have forgotten the names of the titles to these books I once read, and do you know this feeling? In one, a botanist befriends a chosen savior, rides a horse out of town, and finds a special door, which makes a sound like a gong. In the other, there’s a woman in a hospital bed who suddenly develops special powers.

I used to have some of these, too, where I could will a thing to happen with my mind. I’d think, ice cream, ice cream, ice cream––all day, sometimes two, three, four days in a row––and then, out of nowhere, I’d hear it, the sound of the Good Humor truck! It was magic. I coveted the Chipwich, but the firecracker popsicle would do.

The dog is gone again, also the cat. But now I have this chameleon. I hope someone will claim it, as it will not eat standard pet food. I am tired of buying crickets, but I am not sure if it is any good at hunting and don’t want it starving on my watch. I don’t know where it is now, BTW.

I found a wedding ring, a kayak paddle, a Dora the Explorer backpack full of syringes, and a small sandal, sized for a toddler’s foot––all on the bike path near the railroad tracks. There was an open suitcase near the offramp by Broadway and Main, clothes scattered everywhere, my eye was drawn to the colors: blouses in fuchsia, teal, pomegranate, and the display of women’s underthings. 

I lost the number I meant to call. Remember we met on the beach? And the name of that movie I told you about? It was my favorite that year, but after I returned it, I never saw it anywhere else. 

I’m seeing these lost parts everywhere. In the mirror and on everyone I pass. They’re hanging off of us all the time. Sometimes we look like ragged snakes, trying to shed old skins, other times like ragged soldiers in torn battledress, other times just like children who have just left their favorite toys in the park. You can tell, sometimes, when someone’s about to drop their courage. The sight of joi de vivre melting off a face is so particular. When someone stumbles upon their lost sense of humor, it’s infectious, leaking out of their pores.

Then there’s all those things you don’t keep and you don’t hold, that pile of griefs accumulated somehow, stuffed or tossed one by one, in the backs of closets, under the bed, dropped into the abyss of an oversized purse, in the catchall drawer with all the takeout menus and spare hardware––but eventually, you’re not losing and you’re not finding, exactly; they’re just there. And then there are these moments in the produce aisle of the grocery store where you’re suddenly floating over the citrus display, then landing near the parsley and cilantro, eyes suddenly wet, because it was only a moment, but you saw it, how people clutched their carts and baskets to themselves, or out in front, like shields, filling and emptying, an endless stream, searching eyes glazed under fluorescent lights. 

“Osprey” by Laura Pontiggia on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

I meant to list some more things I was finding, but my hands are tired, knuckles white. 

Funny how you can lose the will to hold a thing, even when you thought you could––if you saved up, if you built muscles strong enough, if you never looked down. I’ll come back tomorrow, I’ll open this catchall drawer, I’ll look. While I’m at it, I’ll check these ads again, see if anyone’s missing a chameleon. Then I’ll see about finding the chameleon. But now, I need to find some silence, and a pillow.

Before I do, do you know that the osprey have built a nest in those lights across the field? Do you remember? That song we used to sing back and forth when life was the thing we would keep, between us, if only we held tight enough. I can’t remember the words now. Can you help?

Big and Little: a Reunion

You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

BIG
I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.

And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?

Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?

I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.

What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?

This is the end of the time when we rhyme.  But wait!  Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road. 

A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?


LITTLE
Remember how we used to play the guessing game?

Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.

From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!

At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.

Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!

BIG
Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?”  Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.

Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me:  Laugh!


LITTLE
[laughing]

Again!

“Baby elephant” by Georg Sander on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Before the Storm

Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.

“Eclairs lointains” by jmbaud74 on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky. 

Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.

Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light,  and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste? 

They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”