Reading About the River

Some books are just “too good to put down,” although all too often we have to do just that. On the other hand, the extra time we spend in such books lends itself to savoring. Consider this description of Mr Crow’s river:

No matter how much it may be used by towing companies and water companies and commercial fishermen and trappers and the like, the river doesn’t belong to the workaday world. And no matter how much it is used by pleasure boaters and water-skiers and the like, it doesn’t belong to the vacation world either. It is never concerned, if you can see what I mean. Nothing keeps to its own way more than the river does.

Sometimes, living right beside it, I forget it. Going about my various tasks, I don’t think about it. And then it seems just to flow back into my mind. I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which yet never part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only, but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.[i]

I’ve nearly finished the life story of the barber of Port William. His shop and its surrounds have been more than a summer’s literary distraction. He writes of the country of my own extended family: the slopes of the hills and culverts are familiar, as are the town shops and benches in which and on which the talk of the town, and thus its very life, is shared. I was young and raised away from the rural farms of my parents,  but I still witnessed what the steady pressure of modernity brought upon these unsuspecting places. On a macro-scale we might say towns were bypassed. On a microscale, it meant the loss of buying a Nehi at the general store and forested dells sectioned forever by the progressive ribbons of “interstate highway.”

But today I want to share the joy in Jayber Crow’s friendship with Burley Coulter. Burley is often wandering and hunting in the woods and then seen doing others good and setting people to rights. He goes out of his way to set up and befriend Jayber, for instance, and their “membership” with one another, along with a few others in Port William, extends some 40 years.

“He was a man aboundingly evident, and yet one who belonged in some part to mystery, who lived the life of the place in a way that none of us entirely knew.” Jayber’s words describing Burley echo off the pages and take me down the years. I fly out of line in the Cambridge coffee shop and off to the River, to Jayber’s cabin. And when Jayber asks Burley’s son Danny about leasing this heavenly spot, because “…I want to be square with you, now,” and your eyes move to the final sentence there on page 319… you’ll forgive me, won’t you,  for whipping out my sunglasses so no one in line can see my tears?

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps I should let them fall. Burley’s gone, after a full, full life I remind myself. Besides, in this particular moment is it so unusual to cry for a man I don’t know and a place I haven’t been? But that’s not right,  I think as I leave the shop. I have known Burley, and I have been to that place.

Wendell Berry has taken me there.

 

[i] Berry, Wendel. Jayber Crow. Berkeley, Counterpoint, 2000, page 310.

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Bringing Home Grief

We’re approaching high summer now and national tensions, sadness and grief run like a sub-theme through our commuting. Each day the train continues to take most of us to the jobs we were doing “before,” before the summer, before our present pain, and before the juxtaposition of pain and summer’s beauty were upon us. Last week I reached for a book that, come Fall, will have served as a tonic this season.

“…You could see, still, that she was the woman who had said that. She was a woman who loved her hen flock and her garden and her flowers. Every day, from early spring to late fall, she made a little wander around her house and yard to see what was coming up or getting ready to bloom or blooming. She was always bringing home some plant or seed or root or “sticking it in the ground” to see if it would grow. And within all else she was, she was keeper and protector of the grief by which she cherished what she had lost.[i]

Jayber Crow is describing his neighbor in Port William, Miss Gladdie Finn who in life has lost and loved much. And although I found myself ‘sticking into the ground’  the chopped up, dragged out roots of my front lilacs the other day, it’s the image of Miss Gladdie going about her small work with a big heart that is staying with me. What is the balance between keeping and letting go of our grief? Is there any value at all to its “keeping?”

Usually we’re counseled, and the world verily demands, that we move on through grief, be it 5 stages, 12 steps, 4 booklets or some other schema. We know we carry something forward, but we aren’t sure what or why. We also know that to tarry with a loss puts us at risk of being unavailable and, if your parents are like mine were, also at risk of hearing them say aloud or in your mind, “Well, now what? Get a move on!”

Perhaps Miss Gladdie has a word for us all. Even as we move forward from today, from whatever yesterdays have left us with loss, we can go forward with our grief better situated. Perhaps if it’s placed in the heart just right, the grief won’t improperly tie us to the one we’ve lost; rather it will serve as a marker of something, someone once cherished, and therefore remembered, and so still beloved. I like to think this can be a place from which we move, maybe even with the one now gone:  inspired to do better, to care more, to try again.

[i] Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow: the life story of Jayber Crow, barber of the Port William membership, as written by himself: a novel. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2000,  page 141.

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Garden Jewels

We woke to a cloudy day this fifth of July, and while we’re desperate for rain, these clouds don’t seem to be producing much more than commuters who probably can’t quite believe the week will rocket away as fast as it will, given the relaxing three day holiday behind us. In fact, an audible sigh that just passed this way from an incoming passenger now standing in the crowded aisle: “This is Brutal.”

That might be a bit of an overstatement, I grant you, but we’ll let it go in the interest of getting to a pesky post I’ve carried too long in my head, unable to get it down to my digits. Small doings as usual, but taken together, it’s the garden on my mind, and the beauty it has produced despite this lack of rain.

The rose bush that “never blooms” has sprouted more than 100 flowers. One half of this bush is a dead gray stick, and the other parts looks too mean to do any good to anyone, never mind let out this bounty. Yet what I’ve seen over there has impelled me to cross the toasted grass multiple times for a closer look. It’s amazing.

The poppies, now gone, were ablaze and their pods while not yet open, stand ready to pop their lids when the time is right. Only the daisies are in flower now that the raspberries are coming in. Somehow the hostas, those dependable friends, are also showing resilience.

Perhaps, then, “garden jewels” is a bit of a stretch as we hit midsummer, and it’s probably even more of a stretch to compare my backyard pool to a jewel. We learned over the weekend that the pool may have reached its conclusion. When I shared photos of its rusty panel, which, if made today, would “just pop out and be replaced for $70.00,” our pool man said he’d take it down TODAY. So we began the draining while agreeing to seek an on-site consultation, remembering fondly its turquoise waters that calmed many a hot mind and body across our six people and more over what’s been a 17-year, very good run.

The informal mid-summer mark of New England’s July 4th usually finds me happiest in my own backyard. The bluebirds have fledged but the fuzzy robins have not. That means the clematis may now be trimmed but the rose-of-sharon may not. Out my train window just now, I do see heavier rain coming. And that means if it extends, like a nor’easter, out over the sea to backwash Cape Ann, even just a little, a whole territory and its inhabitants will be very happy for the real jewel: Rain.

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The Curved Bill and the Sentinel

This perfectly sunny looking June morning belies the intense and terribly sad news of the last two weeks. We might wonder, if we can find room for all the people filing into this train from one of the most populous stations, why can’t we find more room for peace in the greater world beyond this train car?

I thought about this while gardening and catching up after a whirlwind visit from our eldest daughter and her second born son on the weekend, flown in for a wedding from one of those big Midwestern states. Before those chores started, the dog and I had our early morning marsh saunter, the river at nearly full tide. This walk also included two distinct bird moments: a close up fly-by of that ancient bird I’ve described before, the glossy ibis. He flew across our path so close that the curve of his bill was in sharp focus. I suppose it’s fitted just right for pecking at small creatures in tidal mud flats, but, well, it’s a bit strange.

Only fifteen yards further down the path we startled into action one of the many sentinels posted in the high grass this time of year: the Bobolink. A fat bellied, sassy bird, sporting his patchwork black, white, and yellow, he elevates up and away noisily when you approach what his probably his young family. But if you gaze across the grass, you’ll also see many simply sitting on a tall reed of grass: watching.

We need these birds of beauty, form and function. We need to see them about their daily business of quietly looking for food, providing for young, watching out for the neighborhood, flying in their freedom. Their lack of conscious thought or self-awareness as they do these things does not make the doing of them less important or instructive for us. Yes, birds in a meadow are physically removed from the troubled places and rawness of much of our lives. But can’t we wonder, just for a moment, about our reaction to difference while we guard, as a sentinel would, precious life?

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“Dry Air”

It’s really too beautiful to go to work today, we agreed on the drive over to the station. I stood in the sun waiting for the 8:00 (as opposed to the 8:02) and while many two word phrases could have come to mind, I heard myself whisper aloud: Dry Air.

The other choices now race past me: Beautiful day, warm sun, clear sky, June 1….even “don’t go” was compelling. “Let’s canoe” would have been another fine suggestion, or “let’s go,” implication being to the gardening store. But all that will have to wait until the next lovely day in June. I’ve lived in New England long enough to be fairly sure we will have more such days but I also know this waiting carries at least mild risk. It can so easily be cooler or wetter than one would hope, not to mention muggy hence: the wonderful refreshment today of dry air.

All this talk has a rather meteorological and temporal feel to it, however. I should be able to reach in and find more significance to this beauty all around me. Here come my fellow passengers, climbing aboard at my former “stillpoint” chai latte stop. Each one carries a story and brings themselves to this day ahead. What am I bringing, and doing? What is my significance?

If you’re like me, the list of the undone, unfinished, unorganized and unbegun can be so long it forms a snare around one neck’s, threatening to block from view any of the done, finished, or even “well underway.” Why is that, I wonder? Why is it that a beautiful day can make our soul long to do the things we’ve put off doing? If we look, we can find them shunted to the bottom of our list. Are we doomed never to begin them?

I reach into the pocket of my mind to find those things on my list as my trainmate reviews his math and taps his giant headphones to bring his music and concentration into focus. Ah, here they are: Learn to play my guitar. Play my way through the kids’ piano books of easy tunes. Find all my fragmented writings and poetry and put them into book form. Write stories about my maternal farmer grandmother based on the few precious objects I have that were once hers (I thought of that just yesterday). Simplify, simplify, simplify. (well, I grant you: that was borrowed from a famous resident of nearby Walden Pond.) But you get the idea: if we were able to muster enough energy in the dry, lovely June air to carry us through the work-a-day world and muggy air, would we begin the things we have not yet started, or be able to see anew the things our hands have finished?

It’s past time to get back to “real work” here in my seat and cease day dreaming. I’ll come home early today, and I’m glad June brings light late. I’ll look again at my surprisingly newly opened pink poppies, and decide what to do next.

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Monday Morning Well Check

This bright Monday morning has the auspicious start of a new train schedule for the greater Boston area. For me it means an additional morning rush hour train at (let me check…) 7:35 and/or a two minute shave off my 7:07 for a 7:05 departure from my station. As we pulled away at 7:08, a glance over the marsh revealed 4 bounding deer heading away toward the wood line. It’s going to take us all a few days.

I’d been gripped with indecision about which train to take since taking the dog out at 5:20. Old habits die hard, and there was a “Platform 9 ¾ “ feel to that newly proposed time. Would a 7:35 train really appear? I decided not to chance it.

But this day also brought a new touchstone to the routine based on input from a neighborly gathering on Friday night. This group meets twice a year to share a meal and catch up on our lives. We learned over dinner that one of our neighbors always notices the pizza boxes outside our fence put out for the Monday morning trash collection. Drive-by pizza: he notices; he expects to see boxes.  I hope it’s a small signal all is right in one part of our really small world.

Our group also talked for a while about our morning routines: who left when, drove where, noticed what. I wondered aloud why someone had stopped to take a photo of my house. Someone else’s place remains a bus stop for the kids to keep them off a busy road. Will the new train schedule mean we will see you pulling out of your driveway in the morning? Will we meet you at the intersection?

“Every day’s a Saturday,” exclaimed another neighbor I saw at the next-door winery release party the night previous. Retired, golfing and happy she was;  I know we all can’t leave the day jobs for a while to join that more relaxed subset. The fact is I’m not ready to trade in my commute or take up golf. But I’m happy this neighbor is happy. I’m thankful my other neighbor notices my trash.

The waiting crowd as we approach the Salem train station is four rows deep on the platform. We’re never standing room only at this junction. Yes, it’s going to take a few days.

 

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Piranga olivacea

No, I don’t know the Latin names of many birds, but it seems fitting to use one here to pay tribute to the showman I saw 3 days ago on an impromptu extension of the normal ‘river walk.’ Already I’d seen a very intentional willet stalking the mud flats near the tidal river, and then way up in the treetops I’d caught the first-of-the-season glimpse of that orange flash oriole doing his aerial dance. “You are back!” I thought as I watched, assuming (falsely, as it turned out), that he would be Bird of the Day.

But no way was Nature having her final say with him today. Quite surprisingly I agreed to the dog’s request to cross the road and amble a short while through the woods. And there, 25 yards back from where the tiniest watercourse (if it can even be called that) intersects the path, up in a left-side gap, a brilliant red splash sat calmly, in full view, showing me his black wing and beautiful self.

I froze in place and said the first and only thing that came to mind: “Vermillion Flycatcher!” However, this NOT being Arizona, I fell into a stunned silence of waiting for the right word to come. But since nothing did, I stood still, admired, and tracked him back to a nearby canopy and returned home to dive into Sibley’s.[i]

First I checked on my old Arizona friend, and of course then proceeded to Mr Piranga, aka, you guessed it: the Scarlet Tanager. He’d posed for me in all his splendor, giving me that dash of beyond-red to carry with me through the laundry, vacuuming (is your dog still shedding?), poison ivy pulling, grocery running, skypes with family and all the rest of the duties of the day….I’d been away to my Indiana home for a long weekend, and there were things to do out here in my coastal home.

Thank you, tanager, and thank you, spring day. You are both elusive, but what you show us, when we are fortunate enough to see, burns into our minds the promise of warmth and the presence of joy.

 

[i] Sibley, David A. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000.

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