Posts Tagged ‘Grief’

Look Everywhere for It

September 16, 2014

Look for Death Everywhere

They've just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

They’ve just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere,” or so said essayist Michele du Montaigne—who had a fairly jovial, frank perspective on The Great Matter.

In fact, it did seem the dying baby turtle was there, waiting for me.

In fact, the turtle was waiting for anyone. But it was only waiting because it couldn’t move very much…

I don’t know much about turtles. Only that in my childhood, by the beach in the summers, we used to come across a lame turtle, missing front claws on one leg, who occupied himself by crossing the road. He was the embodiment of the tired chicken joke, and we named him Tommy.

We brought him home to Brooklyn at the end of one summer, thinking we’d rescued him from certainty of being squashed. We put him in a tank in our backyard and fed him wet dog food, as instructed by the local pet store. Being smarter than that fate, he escaped, and dug his way into the neighbor’s garden, where he lived pleasantly for a few years, just ahead of the self-subsistence, urban ecology movement.

I do know some other things: if you’re really small and really cute, then you can’t have been on this earth too long. And if you have one eye oozing what can only be blood—poetically fuscia blood—you haven’t got much of a chance. There aren’t turtle band-aids, nor turtle prosthetic eyes—not in the park.

 Turtle Blues

Here’s how it unfolded:

I’m in Prospect Park on a path that hugs the lake, which shimmers under a green gloss and under the blue throes of sky. The foliage canopies over the path; the spring is as fat as it can be; the flowers have pulled back so the leaves can explode. They call this “the setting.”

 

Blue sky for turtle blues: "the setting"

Blue sky for turtle blues: “the setting”

There is legitimate thicket between the paved path and the shoreline. People are fishing—and fish are latching, too easily duped. The shore is buffered by woodchips, where the caught fish are laid out. They don’t even flail. It’s their oh shit moment.   They take it lying down, so to speak. They call this “the obstacle” or “the membrane” or “the margins.”

A couple is walking toward me. The woman has a tiny baby tied to her front. The man has that dazed, admiring look of the one who is not carrying the baby, and so can marvel at it. You know they’re not sleeping much—the baby could almost fit back into the uterus, so small is it. The colors of her skirt and ruffled nursing shirt echo the trees. His clothes look like they could have been pulled out of the dirty laundry pile. Suddenly, he stoops, takes something up in his hand from the path; the couple’s attention is pulled from the baby, and from inadvertently checking on its aliveness, to this little thing. It takes a lot to divert from the baby. The baby sleeps cooperatively. Maybe it knows it has met its fragile match, and defers.

When I get close enough, I can see it’s a turtle he’s got in his hand. Almost the size of a half-dollar, its legs the size of a teenage fly. I’m on the phone with R, my teacher, who’s telling me about the uncompromising morality of his best friend C, who just died. He now wears a thick plastic purple memorial bracelet that asks, “What would C say?” That question makes him pause, recollect his own off-beat heart and frantic kidneys. It encourages him to be direct and let (a love? Or is it always love?) go. This is called “not filling in the blank.”

 Diagnosing fatality

“It’s injured,” the man says, looking at the turtle clinically, dispassionately. His voice sounds new to diagnosis, the way we hear parents speaking around their newborns, assertions that sound like questions and vice-versa (“He’s hungry?”). The man is trying out being definitive about the status of a creature that can’t supply its own words for what’s going on. But in this case the turtle seems to agree.

R’s friend C got so sick that she went off like a mist from the lake. That’s what a poet could say. In reality, her death was a window slamming shut. And as my 17 year-old student said about the death of his mom from an aneurism: the glass broke into a million pieces, waited in tact for a moment that gave you dumb hope, and then fell.

Blood is coming out of the turtle’s left eye in a perfect bead, the exact size of its other eye. The drop isn’t even going to drip—how much blood could its body possibly contain, anyway? A thimbleful of circulation? The turtle doesn’t move its legs at all, but stays perfectly still, as if cooperating with death, or knowing not to waste an iota of effort on pointless movement.

But I feel, when the man hands the creature to me, without really asking if I want it—the way a mechanic hands a wrench to his assistant—that I have the whole universe pinched there, between forefinger and thumb. The task, whatever it is, feels as huge as the turtle is tiny. Like the whole park is backing me up, being the bigger Hand in which we both are held. Putting me in charge. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I don’t know how this turtle got itself in this condition from the shoreline to the path. In a blind daze? Lear in the storm? Or perhaps the couple found it still in pathetic motion, mid-stride to the other side. The turtle’s crossing echoes the will-to-change of our Tommy, though this little one is far less well-equipped for survival on either side of any road.

Are you going towards the Audobon center,” the man asks. It isn’t a question, and doesn’t deserve a question mark: it is an instruction.   The man has a brown bag in his hand, a bit of grease gathering on the bottom. He wants to eat his bagel and hang out with the baby, I think. He wants to celebrate life and normalcy, not be pulled into this most mini of tragedies. He gestures at the baby, not even on purpose. As if to say: We have other responsibilities. Jr. will inevitably have to breastfeed. As if to say: We’re in the business of life. Can’t you see that, childless pedestrian?

“Can you take it.” Again, an instruction.

“I don’t know where the Center is,” I say, apologetically.

And both of them immediately point—this they know. They become a Greek chorus of two, choreographing the procession of the tragedy: “That way. The direction you are walking. Unmissable. By the boat house.”

I nod agreeably.

The turtle turns the other cheek

They go off down the path, the other way from death. Turns out the Audobon is only a stone’s throw away from where we found the turtle. But now the turtle is my problem and death’s problem.

And of course the Audobon is gated, locked up for the weekend. R is very patient, still on the phone, ministering to the turtle with me, while I make half-sentences, half talking to him, half talking to the turtle. He’s used to the interruptions.

Some things that might be true about death: Death tires you and lightens you in a very particular way. Death is like sea turtle sitting on your lungs but trying to teach you how to swim in new waters. Death is like the sky over the lake. Death isn’t like anything.

The turtle is saying, let’s get on with it.

The turtle is saying: I’ve just been through this. I just got born. My body will remember the way out.

No, the turtle isn’t saying anything. I feel panicked. It’s supposed to help me out here. Like I have a chance I can’t understand to do something I don’t know how to do. At the same time I feel peaceful, like there are no decision to be made, and we are getting on the mortal slide together, and throwing our hands up, and descending to a groundless place.

I live here, but I don’t know where a vet is nearby. R says I could take the creature home and get my J to tend, but J won’t be home til nearly midnight. I don’t think the turtle has that long. I ask myself if it has resources here, in its natural milieu. The shore of the lake by the Audobon center is steep and clearly man-made. A drop-off that resembles the ledge of a swimming pool more than a proper liminal descent.

The turtle is punctured; nature does to all of us eventually. I fret that I’m stressing it out, carrying it around indecisively like this in its injured state. It was finding its own way through death, and then we swooped in with our personal, somewhat heroic notions of salvation.

The path around the lake is newly renovated, and meant to increase human enjoyment and animal presence on the cleaned-up access to shoreline. Still, it takes me some stumbling around to find a proper patch of mud an animal might recognize. Might die or nurse itself back to health in.

I began to look here

I began to look here

It wouldn’t seem mud would be hard to find here. But that’s how it is. I imagine the couple with the baby, now happily perched on the grass proper, a mile away, the turtle no more on their mind as they watch their baby do the idiosyncratic cute things babies do—open and close its mouth, wince at the light, root for the nipple. While they chew their buttery bagels, glad to be sitting and eating and parenting, somehow. By instinct.

“Have a good death or a good life”, I say to the turtle. “Whichever comes first.” And R does his mantra, mumbling, the kind of mumble that is proper to reverence, where you honor someone’s clear path out by contrast, by speaking with blurry edges.

And I put the turtle down and turn and go. What happens next is truly not my business. And R reminds me, gently, as the living must do, “Wash your hands sometime soon.”

“Of course,” R adds later, “there are some things you can’t wash your hands of—ever.”

All the while I had pinched it between two fingers, not cupped it in my palm. Its energetic imprint remains there. I’m resisting the urge to go back and keep vigil—I don’t think animals need our vigil. They have their own ways of dying that anthropomorphizing can only disrupt, not honor.

Still I wonder how its eye had come to be gone—as if someone had committed a violent crime of passion—an eye for an eye. Just this.

The lake and the big sea

All around the path, the animals come and go, bustling with not being dead. An egret, slender as a number two pencil. A red wing blackbird. More of those fish, banked—they’ll get thrown back and start again. A plastic bag or two in the algae.   You can feel the quiet tolerance of nature for the dumb and unnatural things we do.

But everything looks a little tilted. A man practicing headstands in the grass. A couple, doe-eyed at one another, their hard-ons and soft-ons barely hidden by their pants. Children on their popsicles, a mature form of latching, the popsicles already blending into the t-shirt fabric. I imagine I can feel the strain of my uncle dying states away. All death connected to all other death in a secret pact made on our behalf before we have a say in the matter.

There are birdcalls, and leaf-blooms, and funny human screeches from the fountains in the converted ice-skating rink. Small ones running between the jets. Boys on skateboards, looking for an audience for their tricks. A bum fumbling with his pants button unsuccessfully on the newly paved promenade.

And what could the baby turtle hear? And did it care to be saved? Was it already confused enough by having just been born—was it returning, with accepting familiarity, to the place it had newly come from? I prodded it a little when I put it down, as if to awaken its own internal drive to go towards the water, and either drown or live on. It didn’t seem to take any particular cue.

Most endings are constructs, or tentative, like this one. We crawl down the bank. We submerge in the greater thing. We are tossed beyond our semantic system. We turtle towards the Universal Objective.

And then we enter the sea—the big sea, where all semantics dissolve, where all sense of name and form is subsumed by nameless and formless—as Montaigne says: “Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had just before entered it.” Surely, in turtle-time, we’ve all just entered it.

We’re still baffled, looking everywhere to know what this place really is, where we are, and how we might crawl on. And the answer is everywhere, everywhere.

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Little Losses

May 17, 2014

Sayonara, Baby Beardie: A short tale of a short life

First, the tip of his tail broke off the way a burnt pizza crust breaks.

“Wilbur’s dying,” John said.

John had incubated the clutch and taught the neonates to eat—first roaches, a colony delivered by mail, arriving in the cardboard box marked “delicate” on the same day the chirpy exterminator came to evict the native pests in our apartment. Then John coaxed the neonates into hand-fed vegetarianism, with ribboned kale and dandelion.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life.  Nap time.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life. Nap time.

 

The little guy Dying, capital D? That made no sense. People didn’t expire from broken arms. Lizards shouldn’t expire from broken tails.

Wilbur was the runt; runts are supposed to live a runty, underdog life, giving us something to root for. They help us see the runty parts of ourselves, tucked behind our competence.

I protested, “But he’s so cute! Take it back” As if the universe had ever once made exception for cuties.  A special primordial panic sets in when anything in your care is dying. Pity the fly. Pity the spider-plant.

There should be a rule: if you have just been born, you can’t die for a bit. Amnesty.

But there is no such rule, no such amnesty, and no such guarantee. Infant mortality is still a major employment opportunity for The Stork’s dark brother. Clearly, life does not work differently for lizards than for any other creature.

Pregnant Expectations

When Sunny was pregnant, and too skinny for the job, I could feel her from the other room.  Not an “animal person” or even “kind of an animal person” (get it?), I communed with her unabashedly.

You know how women’s menstrual cycles will synch up when in one another’s extended company? So I worried about her Calcium dust and nutrient ratios. Before she was “with lizard”, it had been hard to remember that she existed, tucked away in the boys’ room under the heat lamp. Occasionally it was good fun to watch her put up with Drako’s male dominance dance, head-bobbing atop her; it looked like the volatile prayer of the ultra-religious with a little James Brown.

Yet once Sunny was gravid, the whole house seemed pregnant. Eventually, she dug frantically in the dirt box that John had prepared in the middle of the night. At sufficient depth, she dropped her clutch, covered them, and forgot they existed. So we took over their survival.

The eggs nestled in a Tupperware filed with dirt in a humid, heated, unused fish tank, well covered up against the descending autumn chill. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the situation: how could she let go of these new lives-on-the-edge, and not care for the fact that they were growing into form mere feet from her tank? Imagine if our gestation happened at a short, cold, unacknowledged distance from the womb? There are freaky movies about such things.

 

This is how it works post birth.

This is how it works post birth.

Eventually, the lizards hatched, rested and leapt forth, with extraordinary little burst of life facilitated by the handy egg-tooth. It made me really want an egg-tooth.  John and the boys lay on the floor and stared at them, these little prickles of creation.  And I stared at the three beloved boys staring at life. This may be something like what yoga means by “the Witness.”

Runty Days

Wilbur was the runt, and so he always needed more naps than the other eight. Just getting up from one nap necessitated another nap to recover. The rest of the brood stepped on his head, while climbing up the stick towards the heat lamp. Wilbur just took it, as if he was part stick.

His body was little, much littler than his head. It looked like he could have big thoughts about lizard things, but never gain that much ground.

We favored him. When we gave away the brood, we were going to keep him. In Charlotte’s Web, the runt not only lives, but also becomes a famous speller. Could we not hope as much for Wilbur?

I got your back.  Don't mind that I just stepped on your head.

I got your back. Don’t mind that I just stepped on your head.

But once the tail broke, once the pummeling started, even easy spelling words weren’t in the cards—only one, the Big D, the Big I, the Big E. The huge spiders zip-lining in our bathroom could write it all out for him.

The universe was sucking the meat back from his body through an invisible straw. Every day, Wilbur’s skin hung on him more and more. He was the world’s youngest old-man lizard.

John does not give up on any creature, of any size, of any species, no matter how unfriendly the creature (or human) might be toward him.  In this we unite.  But aside from weeping over a few failing tadpoles as a young person and trying to poke them onto a rock with a pencil tip, I’d never really tried to resuscitate an animal.

He pried Wilbur’s mouth open with a tweezer and fed him through a syringe, squeezing in a last-ditch drink of dandelion-leaf and egg whites we’d made with the hand blender, the kind of meal a paleo-athlete brags about. Most of this concoction came right back out of Wilbur’s mouth. He hardly had the energy to open up. Luckily, he would never have to go to the dentist.

John has a strong constitution; he can eat anything (expired meat), break anything (a few ribs), handle anything and still thrive. But stooped over, caring for this fragile creature, his physical strength was all in service to tenderness.  This is the kind of strength I vow my life to. In John’s palm lay a husk of a thing, drained of will.

When animals give up, they don’t need to make excuses for it. Done, their bodies announce. And off they go.

We put Wilbur in the bathroom sink and filled the basin with water to rouse him enough to administer the syringe. Little Q was helper, but he was squeamish, not sure he really wanted to: “It’s not nice to force someone to eat,” Q said.   Perhaps he was empathizing, since for his own mysterious reasons, perhaps mysterious even to himself, he often doesn’t want to eat the food set in front of him. (Unless it’s a cupcake.  Bless the eternal palatability of cupcakes).

Wilbur’s mouth opened by dim reflex. We respond despite ourselves to the feeling of water.

Over and Out

Wilbur died just then in John’s palm, but John didn’t say anything. Wilbur had drowned in his liquid meal, the best he could have hoped for. A smoothie for the last supper. Certainly, this drink would at least give Wilbur an athletic boost over the Big Vault. Into the Lizard Unknown.

That night, John dreamed of his own father, also two years dead. His dad, opining, was sitting on our couch. The reality of the feeling itself let him know it was a dream. The horribleness of that fact came creeping on, like the feeling of one’s bladder at capacity while sitting in car traffic in a tunnel.  Have you ever dreamed this way, woken to what’s worse, the loss made fresh? I’ve had this feeling after deaths, and I don’t know the word for it; I bet the Japanese do. It is bound up with yearning, but more existential.

Before dawn, out practicing with the Naga Buddha who, no matter what, clasps his-her hands in boggling faith, I could feel John’s sadness balloon in the bedroom; the sadness was another kind of pregnant, resonant as I had been with gravid Sunny. His dad could have been grabbing me by the collar and pulling me to the source of all sorrow. Sometimes love has you that yanked.

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

And when John woke up, he confirmed that not only was his dad dead, but Wilbur was too, and now he would wait for the children to wake up. Then, he would speak briefly about the beautiful frailty of life, and bury Wilbur in the biggest planter that we had.  Ugh, death; ugh! Every little loss gouges my chest.  Or maybe I, like Wilbur, was born with this gauge already activated. Creation draws up its funny contracts: Please check this box: I allow you to release my personal information to the universe. No, you cannot have an extension on your taxes.

Safe-Keeping

Like attracts like: the planter where we put Wilbur held an overgrown corn plant, which didn’t look like it would make it either. Despite all the months it had seemed to be dying, a species of palm tree frightened of the Northern low light, it hadn’t done so yet. It pains me to have indecisively dying plants around that just can’t seem to thrive or expire. They don’t have to waste their lives: I’m wasting it for them.

John brought the plant home for my birthday last year; it had been given away by a couple about to have a baby. They needed to reduce the number of other life forms and space-hoggers in their apartment, and so also sold us our dinning room table, made from old telephone poles. Sit here and bless the yummies that sustain us. K and Q and John and I sit at the table and link fingers and thank every little thing on our plates, “and especially the mac n’ cheese for being awesome.” Yes, especially that. Objects, creatures, all in transit. Invented cheese, in transit.

A little stone marks little Wilbur’s spot in his little plot of dirt. Surely the casing of a body would deteriorate quickly, and where there had been a Wilbur, richer soil would be, giving the corn plant a chance, or at least company. And so the cycle of life goes on. Pretty much right away, Q and K set about aiming at the headstone with a water-gun, as very temporary grief becomes play for resilient children.

In the night, I silently place the little runt at the center of my heart into John’s sleeping, half-open hands. For safe-keeping and safe-tending; for this unmeasured journey onto which we embark.

When Wilbur weakened, arms and legs splayed, looking like a cave drawing of a lizard, his desiccated tail had seemed so odd, wrong-sized, misplaced.   But when one crust breaks, so to speak, another dough is just rising. Feel, feel for the rising.

As light does

As light does

Note: This began as an essay I wrote for my 7th grade students as a grammar parsing exercise.  Which goes to show that attention to grammar, and deep love of 7th graders, can lead one to seeing life a bit more clearly.  Also below I am testing out moving away from MM’s longtime stance of representing humans by initials only.   It is hard to capture love in words without strattling the utmost corny of expressions.

 

A Grander Gander

November 22, 2010

“A location is the reply.” – C.S. Giscombe

But what was the question?

stop, go, nevermind

Showing Not Telling

As I write this, winter is laying down its first cards.  Ace of spades?  You’re going to play that in November?

I show my deuce:  I found both mittens on the first try, I say to winter. Finger-mittens. This year is going to be different. And winter just smirks, the way only a very seasoned thing can.

Whereas welcoming the warm weather feels instinctive, welcoming cold takes practice.  In Prospect Park, Peace Be Upon Thee, of Brooklyn, New York, a huge tree, a thing worth worshiping, has dropped all its leaves; it’s birthday suit time already!  Among its roots,  yellows, oranges and biting reds accrue.  There, shooting straight up towards the barrenness, long-stemmed purple flowers—a deep purple—have broken open over the weekend.  These latecomers know how to take just the right amount of food from the light in order to blossom.  As J says over the phone, “It’s their time, now.”

On the way home from PA along Route 80, peak foliage peaking, frost ebbing off the car wind shield, we stop for gas and I fill up my tea mug in the Smart-Mart.  The gas station clerk, who sincerely does not mind if I take some hot water says to me, M’am, where are you from?  And my mother and I, in unison: Brooklyn!  And the clerk: I thought yous’n Europeans! And me: Why?  Because I talk funny? The clerk: No, because of how you’re dressed! Was it the black champion leggings and orange 60’s dress with the unraveling hem that gave me away?  The mushed-up winter hat and knit scarf and sweater-t and vest and layers that add up to bulk but not protection?  I smile: 100% Brooklyn.

And now we go back in time, before Fall Fell, to a different journey.

Face Place

somethin' pastoral

If the United States were a face, Michigan would be the forehead.  In the bygone days of the 1500s, when phrenology was hot and scientific and sewers were open, a large forehead indicated particular intelligence.

Many eastern traditions locate our third eye as lodged in the center of the forehead.  This eye sees into the transcendent nature of the self.  It knows where all our metaphorical oil wells lie.

Our physical eyes may present a more direct line to the soul but the forehead is equally charged.  It’s where we register emotion, cognition, aging.  It is largely ignored as facial feature—not the main event.   But its space and skin has a lot of information for us, if we look.

Michigan has suffering the same fate, this large but neglected feature of our United  Face.

Road Worthy

J and I are on a road trip in the NorthWest of the State.  To the Leelanau Peninsula, hooking around Traverse City, the Cherry Capital of the World, and up, up and away to the U.P.  Then back to Hubbard Lake and the little white house, where the red pines will be obstinately not pining for us, the hummingbirds whipping their wings at the feeders.  The objective is for me to see Michigan, beyond what I already have.

Because it is the fruit bowl days of August, anyone with three planks and soil has set up a farm stand; peaches, raspberries, blueberries.  Every few miles, sloppy and uneven lettering announces homemade pies and bushels of new produce.  This keeps things sweet.  We don’t stop for the blueberries, which feels like an offense.  J’s mom calls the seasonal bounty “what’s up now.”

bluer than the eye can apprehend

In response to the signs, I’m: Blueberry, blueberry, BLUEBERRY!— my juicy mantra. Blue: the color of  my body when my mother delivered me, hidden in a confused rush of membrane. For me, what the earth makes—its pro-duce—soothes the anxiety that comes with being a living thing.  You’re born dangling from it.  When the cord is cut, the angst shrivels right up and moves into your belly, with the honky-tonking gastro-bacteria.  Frequently and often before sleep, I can feel it creeping around, like the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, trapped in the great room of the body, where the windows are all open but to no avail.

The huge fields roll out on either side of the road, stately and vigorous green, interrupted by neat bales of hay.  Old, cavernous farms deteriorate on the hillsides, their wood peeling back and falling in, a conversation with gravity.  The dairy cows lie on their sides, bellies showing.  Among the herd, new calves are just beginning the great game of biology.  It requires lots of naps.

Stop looking at me like that! The cow shouts.  Or I’m going to milk you!

Roger.

barnicle

Spelling Conditionally

Nearing the 45th parallel, a hair or two closer to the North Pole, the marquees exhibit poor orthography.  Do deliberate mistakes whet the appetite?  Up ahead on the expressway lies —ta-dah!— “Kuntry Kubbard.”  It’s got phonetic food for the famished traveler.  In a 3rd grade classroom, these errors would be corrected with a red pen and a kind smile.

O Gosh, J, could we stopp there for a liddle soop? I’m sooo hungry.

listening is an art

Or maybe I’ll just nosh on this superiority complex I brought with me.  Eventually, to squash all that, Lake Michigan appears, glorious, close to the roadside.  First a mere sliver through the bordering pines, it then planes outward, monopolizing the periphery, a sharp, oceanic blue.  Slits in its surface are filled with regular daylight.

tale of two pretties

Along the drive, neglect is rife.  Some signs are missing letters, the advertisement’s equivalent of lettuce-on-the-front-tooth: “WEL OME!”, calls the motel parking lot. It’s been twenty years, perhaps, since that “Welcome” was posted, time in which the other letters have weathered and faded.  The proprietor still hasn’t gotten around to replacing the “C.”   Or perhaps he knows that the brain reliably compensates for obvious missing pieces.

Which is also what love does.

Trippping

We repeatedly pass banners for ALL U CAN EAT Friday Fish Fry, slung across store lots that are mostly empty of cars. Yum: like a drinking contest of aquarium run-off.  Each town has its prized joints.  I want to know exactly how much fish fry a person could eat before the bubble bursts.  Occasionally, a numbed human stands out front, staring into the inevitable patch of wood behind the restaurant, as if remembering that nature, too, has a voracious appetite.

I think that these establishments—most of which look empty of all but the invitation to feast—assume their patrons to be Grizzly bears, newly awakened from hibernation.  Metabolism roaring back to action, the body so hungry that it forgives even verbal shortcomings.  Stuffing yourself is possible only on Fridays; extra cause to mourn the unsurpassable Wednesday-ness of the moment.

In the small almost-towns, where other signs of commercial activity are absent, hair—like the grass– continues to grow.  This stimulates the economy marginally; poor, little economy.   It has sleep apnea.  “Sheer Difference Haircut” petitions us. J’s hair is shaved off.  Mine is hopelessly long.  Rapunzel’s is everlasting. We don’t slow down for this one-shop wonder, nor the fish fry enclave beside it.

Modular Mentality

ponderable

We pass through Ponderosa, which sounds like something weighty, important, stable: settled.  But here advertisements for Modular Homes abound—take it apart, put it together again.

The billboard appears so frequently that it begins to feel like an acquaintance.   One greets it with friendly recognition:  Oh, it’s you again, Modular Home Hawker!

Billboard: Yep.

Me: That’s all you got, ‘yep’?

Billboard:  Listen, Spanky.  Some of us are working, not vacationing.

Me: Sitting on your ass for three days in a car isn’t work?

Billboard: Hey, I’ve also got a lot of rhetorical questions on my resume.

Me: Do you?

Billboard: Yep.

Me: Are you of the Gertrude Stein school that ‘There is no repetition, only emphasis’?

Billboard: Nah.  Definitely, nah.

These modular homes are easily and conveniently transported to the place of your choice with the assistance of a very big truck.  We see a new implant, which has not yet gelled with its plot of land.  Can land reject a structure, like a body can reject an organ?

The house has an elevated door with no steps leading to it.  You’d have to take a flying leap to get in, stand on a ladder to use your key.  The houses are long and pale.   They hardly catch the eye, but encourage the eye to keep going.

I think about our modular existences; discrete selves, a rat’s nest of different identities.  But the self is also like a great expressway: when you are along for the ride, you neither see nor sense its beginning or end.

On Rt. 23, along Lake Huron, we are the only car for miles and miles and miles.  J reflects that this region once would have only been known to those willing to explore it on foot, along trails.  Intimacy of sole, arch, toes.

The Billboard makes a curious face when we are no longer looking but I catch it in the rearview mirror, where it is closer than it appears.

Advert, Adverse

A long time in the car makes it easy to play amateur ethnographer: to think you know something of a place because of what you can see. J is driving, preferring not to talk about anything that requires too much thought.  He has one hand thrown up on the wheel and his eyes trained where road and cloud merge.

and big L said, LET THERE BE

It’s McDonald’s that strikes up the flirtation first: $1.  Ahhhhhhh-some.

Really, I could have your crappy drink for four small quarters?  O joyful noise!  But in the slashing sunlight, I’m busy counting my unhatched chickens, imagining the faces of baby daughters I might or might not ever bear.  Mircea Eliade’s yoga tome lies in my lap.  I don’t need McD’s low cost beverage when I have the waters of consciousness—non-carbonated, but hey– for free.

“Even Mother Nature has an agent!”  Proclaims the next enigmatic billboard.  Beneath it, the tall weeds and milk thistle pods have no opinion.  The fat clouds suck in their breath.  Nature doesn’t need to sell itself—it’s just awesome, and you can take it or leave it.

ahhhhhhh-some-r.

We go through the outskirts of Luddington, a name suggestive of Poo Bear Honey-Makers and Devout Luddites. In Cheboygan, there is Yeck Farm Drive-Through and AllCock’s kitchen.  Where they cultivate and then serve penis with potatoes?

In Ocquecoc, Rosa’s “Squeeze Inn” has vacancies!  So, not such a squeeze after all.    Pathetic Puns are king in these out of the way places, still stamped with their Native names—names so beautiful they sound like secrets. We’re towing the scamp, so we don’t care if there are rooms available.  We’re like disjointed turtles, our home just slightly behind our back.

the mirror of awareness

On a cross-section of a tree, a shingle for “Open-Soon Café.”  The building stands in an otherwise empty lot; its windows have been sloppily and indefinitely covered with white-out.

“Eat or die,” says Jim Harrison, poet and diviner.

“Eat and die,” says Sara Nolan, observing her surroundings.

In a wide alfalfa field littered with un-baled hay, a Chihuahua stands at attention.   The landscape could swallow it whole.  It seems an act of mercy that any detail should stick out.   If this scene were a 500+-piece jigsaw puzzle, and a single, central piece were missing, the Chihuahua would be eliminated.   But these pieces are all there.  The tail is mute, the yaps drowned by speed.

In Lachine, an old man in a sunhat in the spotlight of high noon runs his tractor into a baby tree, planted in a perfect round of soil in the middle of his huge front yard.  He backs the tractor up, straightens his straight hat, and repeats.  Oddly, the tree doesn’t react.

Just when we’re really beginning to feel a part of the whole, the McDonald’s advertisement reminds us:  It’s good to be on top of the food chain. Yeah: fuck all you low-down critters, the sign adds, sub-textually, to the cows that loiter not too far beyond, where the grass is trimmed by their molars.  They don’t call it a chain for nothing.

fill up at the X

At Roger’s City Mobile Station, the twinkle-and-shine of stars is displaced by the neon awnings at the wide intersection: “Pulled Pork is BACK!” reads the sign at the cross-roads.  Someone is terribly excited by this news.  Horace, B.C.s: With my friend returned to me, I go mad with joy.  Perhaps at this very moment, a pulled-pork lover is having a porcine orgasm just imagining the chewing & swallowing & chewing & swallowing.

over here

O How the Mighty

Lake Leelanau is shallow as far as you can walk.  The wind smacks up the water.  Warnings are posted about sharp zebra mussels on the bottom: swim shoes advisable.

No Fun Allowed, I shout to the kids at the playground on shore.

JH arrives to join us from Milwaukee on the slow overnight ferry, which burns coal as it crawls across the huge, star-gulping mass of water.  J meets her in the jeep, brings her back to our scamp-site on the edge of Lake Leelanau, where the ducks look on and the morning bangs us over the head.  The brightness is so sharp it is as if it were just invented.

No more monkeys jumping on the bed.

coping mechanisms

We make strong tea and thick-ground coffee on the little burners, drink at the picnic table kicking our feet and considering the great envelope of grief.  JH’s dad, after much struggle, had been taken into that sealed envelope a few months prior by a stroke.  She dreamed of him the night before his death, not knowing his condition.  In the dream, her family walked into the Black Forest, her parents holding hands, content.  He looked back at her and smiled.

No more monkeys jumping on the bed. A cardiac conclusion.

Orpheus had that idea, too.  The looking back.

When a friend is going through it, sometimes the only thing to do is to sit in quiet together.  Being the lone wolf in the cave: this is how Thea Elijah, wild practitioner of 5-elements Chinese Medicine, describes the most acute stage of grief, the reckoning with the metal element.  M rehashed it for me one night in Jamaica Plain.  We sat on the kitchen floor eating cornbread with ghee and cinnamon and weeping and laughing while summer jiggled the doorknob.

Scraps of the that conversation come back, as J reads aloud to us the poetry of Joseph Stroud and the lyre echoes from Andalusia.  JH has holes in the knees of her jeans that widen and narrow like an extra set of eyes adjusting to the light. Each of us a wolf.  Each of us staring into the fire.  Between us, immutable rock.

We may be wolves in broad noon-light, but these ducks are not afraid.  They bop past, in step with one another.  To them, all our human discourse is a bunch of foreign quacks.  It is just us and god and the nightingales we recall.

caveless

At nightfall, cooking in the small skillets, we turn on “scamp radio”—the battery-powered transistor, which blasts tunes from the 70s, 80s, and 90s into the jolly, bloated rectangle of the scamp.    This is the time of the egg recall, causing much speculation in the news.  It’s the opposite of Easter, as one farm in Iowa has gifted all the states with salmonella.  The Easter Bunny, waiting out spin of seasons until Spring, is smug: see, Cadberry Cream Eggs aren’t so bad for you! The weather is so hot even the eagles look dizzy.

I wonder when Big G will do the ego recall.  That well-tended egg of self, gestating something so precious it doesn’t even know what to call it.  Its hard shell, it’s slippery interior.  To have friends beside you and fresh air rushing through the miniature windows and the smell of people existing out of doors and warm hands to hold…it makes the waiting to be called—to be called home, as some traditions call it—bearable.

Meanwhile, J stacks wood to begin a fire.

surya assures ya

M.C. of the W.C.

The stars make their crisp mudras after we leave JH at the Ferry dock for her return trip.  It is too late to go take a shower in the common restroom but I trudge off, dirty, to brush my teeth and make shower noises—then, by my logic, I’m sufficiently washed.

The “closed for cleaning” sign, written hastily in magic marker, hangs in the doorway.  Perfect.  An older man comes out of the women’s bathroom with a broken mop in his hand, looking at it as if it has accused him of something.  The damn thing came apart! He says, miffed.

The same magic-marker notice redirects me to go to the Green Building restroom; I ask him where that is.  He volunteers to ride me over in his golf cart, as he needs to replace the mop.  Turns out he’s covering maintenance for his buddy.  I say it’s mighty late to be cleaning a bathroom.  No problem: After this, he tells me he’ll be on patrol.  He’ll run home, grab a few beers, and circle the grounds until one a.m.  Rest assured.  In a world of impermanence, the beer supply dwindles.

Beers? I ask.  That’s one hell of a patrol.

I think it makes me sharper. He says.  I’ve been known to stop and socialize a bit, too. Knock back another beer or so.  People know me.

We laugh.  The night laughs.  It’s all just a bowl of cherries.

Bathroom, Part Deux

The next morning in the clean bathroom I see a little boy dawdling outside the showers.  He leans against the wall, examining his toes in his sandals.

Boy: Hi.

Me:  Hi.

Boy:  Do you like my eyes?

S: Yes.  Do you like my eyes?

Boy:  I like your eyes but I don’t like you.

S: Oh?  That’s too bad for me.

Boy: I like Kristen.

S: Where is she?

Boy:  Up North.

S: That’s a bummer.

Boy: She’s UP NORTH!

Mom [from shower]: Andrew?  Andrew?

S: No problem– we’re just flirting out here.

Andrew follows me to the sink where he glares at me as if the force of his eyesight could transform me into Kristen.  I remain distressingly me.  He blinks in disgust.

“Friday Lake Perch Yum.”  A nonsense Interval.

My not-quite haiku:

Torch Lake.

Cherry Juice

Concentrate.

“Brethren That Way”, they say?   The scarecrow intertwines his arms and sticks his big toe out in the direction of true North.

Well, “Don’t worry what people think.  They don’t do it very often.”  A quote I cannot place.

Post Facto

so much depends

At the U.P. Fort Algonquin Trading Post on the old Mackinac trail, Warren Hagen, a big-boned, big-fleshed clerk who is also third generation Tribal, tells us they carry the best sweet-grass in the world. You want to get yourself killed, he says, go down and pick some as a white manYou’ll get yourself killed fast.  That wasn’t part of our afternoon plan, but we take a few braids from the string from which they suspend.  The braids are firm and flexible.

J and I had hunted for sweet grass in the old horse pasture on the family property, then again in the clearing of the back acres.  His Dad had smelled it first while driving the mower, but couldn’t pick out the plants.  We snapped blades of grass in two, sniffed them—nope, this one just smells like plain old grass.  We put our faces close to the earth.  The grass glared back.  We just want to invite the gods in, I say.  But the grass must think we failed to notice the small gods, who don’t need to be invited because they never leave.

In the cluttered shop, J and I both fixate on the native flute, hanging from the low ceiling just above where the eye-level.  A small bear, carved from the single piece of wood, perches on the shaft.  A single feather graces the tip.  J asks permission, then blows a few notes.  It’s what tree and wind would say to one another in our absence.  He’s obviously going to buy it, eyes narrowed to the point where the cleft of the bear’s ass shows.  O, yes.

The trading post is brimming with trinkets and knick-knacks—many of them brought from Mexico or even Peru.  Made in China, one miniature says.  So is my underwear!  Sacks of black rice squat on the shelves.  Colossal scalloped shells turned empty-side up, innards shining, to be used for ceremonies.  This area is known for its Petosky stones, J says, as I pick up a small one. They are the remnant of when this place was under sea, so many tumbled fossils.

When Warren rings up our purchases, he adds, plus five dollars that I give to the governor, to keep her off my back.  He writes out the receipt by hand in script, runs the credit card through an antique looking machine.  One day the credit card itself will be that obsolete.  I look at the knives, the sage bundles propped everywhere, the baskets and brass bracelets.  You can make an offering out of anything if you’re willing to let it go.

Objectionable

map, territory, enh?

We make a brief stop in the Baude Amerindian Museum, housed in a converted garage, on our way out.  Among the documents on display are the illegal legal Totally Unfair Treaties made with the Tribes by Andrew Jackson et al, ceding huge amounts of land in exchange for protection.  Protection of the sort a piece of toilet paper offers you from a sudden hailstorm.

Andrew:  Hey, can you sign this thing?  Yeah, it says some stuff about stuff, land and stuff.  Here, isn’t this bead pretty?  You want it?  O.K., then sign this.  I know you can’t write.  Any mark will do fine.  Great, let’s go get drunk. That was more or less the government promise, disguised by jargon.

Objects of something very lost are kept here.  A canoe—alternately, canoo, canno—made from burnt out logs, scrapped with flint knives and shells.  Pipes, rescued from Climax, Minn.  A Tomahawk, used to execute those who committed crime against the tribe.

A garrulous woman stands at the front counter, reminding visitors that the museum is free.  We cut short her chatter, saying we have little time to stay.  She gives a slight nod: “Well, I’ll see you on your way out, unless spirits get you.”

Yes, Unless.

Whose Woods These Are I Think I ….

Eventually, we roll up to J’s home, Hubbard Lake, the jeep seats dented in the perfect cast of our butts.  It’s so good to be back I want to hug the dirt and dock and arugula sprouts by the waterfront.

In the woods, the animals know we’re coming and get upset.  Even when we tread softly and enter only with best intentions, the creatures are irritated—we’re a disruption.  They know us for who we are even if we don’t: predatory animals who have forgotten we’re animals.

When we remove our shoes and walk barefoot, we’re forced to step lightly because who wants to step on Unidentifiable Woods’ Stuff?  There is a certain decorum you must practice in the woods.  If you want to see anything, you must go slowly.  Luckily, J knows this and knows it well enough for two of us—from a lifetime of respecting the arrangement.   There is a language of the woods to be learned.  For me, it is a foreign tongue.

A deer makes what sounds like a sneeze-bark.  J says she smells us but can’t yet tell where we are.  The owls call and then pause, teenage bards loafing around in the twilight—they move from tree to tree, excitedly bored.  The nearby squirrel who, in turn, can’t find the owls but knows they are close, vocalizes distress.   Pin-wheeling in the dark, all of us.

At the trading post, Warren told us that the Native Americans played their flute tones by following the rise and fall of the tree-line.  Whatever they saw, they played.  Landscape conducted the melody.  No doubt who is in charge of the music.

We find feces, places where feral pigs have rooted.  Some days I’d rather be a feral pig, nothing more exciting than digging in dirt for more dirt.  We’re under the dazzle of pines, breath spent, respiratory piggy-bank cracked open from sprinting up and down the hills as fast as we can, hopping ferns and logs.

The spider webs catch on our faces.  Occasionally, we stop short before wrecking a creation: the warning comes from a bead of dew suspended in the middle of the threads, like the single tear of the bodhisattva on a day when sentience seemed a particular bummer for the majority.

The early season apples in the clearing are fattening by the day, tempting just about every living thing in the region to nibble them.  Eve is last in line, dematerialized as most products of fantasy.  She lolls by the exploding milkweed, letting the other animals see what happens when you put knowledge in your mouth.   A tiny garden snake slithers over her toes.  Whatever.

The Long Way

I take two planes, a public bus, a subway, yet another bus, and a car, all to get from Michigan back to Long Island.  My carbon footprint has tendonitis, whines about oversized bones and too much movement.  I wait in midtown Manhattan for the last leg with all my bags and all the signs and all the roads and all the heavy lightness of transit.

86th Street in gray hard joyous New York City.  A man in a rush brushes into a little girl.  Lets fly an expletive.

You don’t say fuck to a little four year old! Her mother yells quietly.

Your kid was in the fucking way! He justifies.

You’re the fuck! She says.

Either way you spin it, Righteousness does not prevail.

The function of man is to be happy. –Aristotle.

Or, spin it like a New-Yorker: The function of man is to be a happy fuck.

Baptismal

In Long Island, I put down my bags and plunge into the bay on Sammy’s Beach to cleanse off the hours of travel and to participate in the environment.  Not ten minutes later, freshly salted, swimming towards the channel where the plovers putter, I’m stung the length of my legs by a jellyfish, who is also participating in the environment.

I tear out of the water, run back along the beach, where sunset is amplifying the rocks and the gulls are picking through crabs they’ve cracked open.  My legs are stinging.  I pour white vinegar on them, then drop into the sand and stifle my skin.  A half-burial while the sea darkens.

 

holy disappearing

I have a late dinner with my parents, red wine and sea bass and tomatoes and greens and the tender conversation that signals arrival home after a significant journey.  My legs prickle and don’t quickly forget what a single tentacle can do.

The next day, when the temperament of sky has shifted, I walk down the road to the peninsula in hazardous winds.  The oaks and pines and runty new plants weave with the gusts.  I think, how do I stack up, when compared to this tree?  What have I made of myself that is more than this?

Over the phone, I ask Liz, 103, how she is, finally back from the hospital and reclining in her home-hospital bed, staging a protest against eating and even listening to her T.V. boyfriend, Charlie Rose.  I shout over the carousing on our porch, where my parents have company.  Beyond, the bay is pretending it is an ocean, churning up white-caps.  It’s a moot point. She says.

Right-O.

We stay on the phone, because that is what one does after cordiality has been razed.  It’s the kind of quiet that besets a pair at the end of a long road trip, in industrial territory, where things have ceased to be interesting or variable and are just themselves.  I can hear her breathing and clicking through her old brain for someone’s news to share.  This will either change or it won’t, she says.  Life just keeps going.

etcetera etcetera