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On noticing

On the Schoodic Peninsula, north of Mt. Desert Island in Maine, we went to a bakery that a man runs out of his house. He sells his goods in the sunroom. We bought coffee and bread, and then he offered us the Sunday New York Times, missing only a few sections, which a customer leaves with him every week, and which he never has time to read because of all the baking that needs to be done. We took it, and drove to the sea.

IMG_1564At the shore, there were some white people, rich, generations safe and clear of any laboring past, who had given their children agrarian village names like Thatcher and Mason. The family gathered by the water, and someone tried to herd the kids who were pelting each other with rose hips. I watched three dolphins cruise by in the shallows, unnoticed.They were close enough in to hear the chuff of their exhalations when they surfaced. A herring gull flustered up and pounced into the water five times before coming up with the crab. An eagle crossed the cove. A friend of the family rearranged the grouping, had everyone shuffle just left a little, angle toward me. Cadence’s attention was flagging; get her to look up. This would be the Christmas photo card, and it would be admittedly lovely, no one could deny that. It reminds me of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” I have wide gaps in my education, and art history is one, so I had never seen the painting before I read about it in Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I looked the painting up with Auden’s gloss already in mind, and searched for anyone in the painting who might have noticed Icarus drowning. The people are all looking away, and even the sheep are inattentive. Only one bird, holding a hunched, maybe alert, posture on a branch overlooking the sea seems to maybe notice the legs disappearing into the water, and if she did, it was probably only long enough to realize that the shape plummeting down was not a falcon in stoop, but a boy falling through the air.

1280px-Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_IcarusWhy does any living thing notice the things it notices? There have been studies done on shearwaters to investigate how they find their way across a featureless ocean. Suspecting it was by scent, researchers began testing this by dousing the birds’ nasal passages with zinc sulfate, which renders the birds temporarily anosmic: deprived of the ability to smell. The birds are then released and followed with tracking devices. Some activities are not impaired by the lack of smell; the birds can generally find food and gain weight, and some do eventually find their way home, even after being dropped off hundreds of miles away, but their way-finding is altered. If they are near shore, they stay close to it, using features of the coastline to orient, like a visual tapping of a white cane. Species that usually migrate at night might shift to day time travel to better see these landmarks. But many birds wander aimlessly for the duration of their scent-blindness. I think about these birds all the time, released after the rinsing, their mental maps blanked out. What is in their minds? A gray static where the knowledge used to be? An urge for home, but no idea how to begin heading back to it? Panic?

D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Self Pity” reads in its entirety,

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

The first time I ever read this, it seemed true, and noble. But I have been among birds long enough now to find it absurd. What would make anyone think this? How would he ever know? Because birds don’t have expressive eyebrows that pinch together in a cartoon expression of anguish, we conclude they are either too stoic, or too dumb to their own suffering to understand it?

The literal disorientation of the shearwaters strips away one of the ways they make sense of the world. Eventually, the destroyed cells lining their nostrils are replaced and they can sense again. I wonder what that return feels like. It must come bit by bit, as each cell matures and links up into the brain pathway, until the map is fully restored. Does the shearwater even notice it returning? If there was fear, when does the fear recede? If there is relief, does it flood in all at once?

Farther inland on the peninsula, we went for a walk along old dirt carriage roads. A bird darted out of the shrubs and flew straight towards us, only veering left at the last possible second. A garter snake saw us, and tensing in fear, dipped its tongue toward the grass, startling an inattentive grasshopper. I love these chains of inattention, of failing to notice. I have watched a 30 second video of a black bear startled by a grouse over and over again. The bear saunters along, and then, as the grouse explodes from the underbrush, the bear jolts backward and you can see her haunches quiver for a second after the rest of her goes still and, head back, she stares at the departing bird. What is in these creatures’ minds in the moments before their attention snaps to the present?

The Schoodic Peninsula is a good place for an introvert. There aren’t many people around. When people are around, and I have to speak to them, I feel a bit like the shearwaters after the nostril rinse. I am blinkered, self-conscious, unable to fully process what is happening. I cannot noticewhen I am interacting. My second son is the only extrovert in our family. You can see his craving for contact as he roams the house and prods the rest of us, each in turn, to talk to him. The three of us peer out at him, molluscan, from our shells, observing, bewildered, exhausted. He asks me, if I could have a choice of superpowers, what would I choose: telekinesis, mind-reading, or invisibility? Invisibility, of course, I tell him.

At the oceanside, the family finishes the photo shoot, and the dolphins have moved on.  The shot was well-framed already, but may need further cropping and finessing at home to show them all in their best light. If it were Bruegel’s painting, it would be foreground to the exclusion of what is left of Icarus. There would be no sign of him.

My son asks me again about the superpowers. This time the choices are flying, teleporting, or invisibility. Invisibility, I tell him again. I want to be able to be in the world without anyone knowing I’m there. He is incredulous that I would not choose flying, but it all ends the same in the long run. Ask Icarus.

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Resident/Transient

On the first day of two weeks’ vacation in the middle of Maine, I ran past an old farmstead. A stone wall fronted a barbed wire fence, and most of the stones were the tumbled, irregular ones common to New England, but a couple were the precious flat stones, easy to stack, nice for paths. Two of these were propped against each other perpendicular, one on end as support, the other a roof bridging it and the jumble of ordinary stones in the rest of the wall. The flat stones described two sides of an open doorway through the wall, with nothing passing through it now in late summer, but likely in spring, making a sluiceway for snow melt and manure slurry to leave the paddock. The sight of this carefully constructed and balanced passage ran my heart through, for no reason I could discern. I ran on past, and kept thinking of it. Someone a long time ago built that doorway for the mud to go through, and now, no one hardly notices it, down low in the ditch, below the eye line of drivers.

I was still thinking about it when a man in a weather beaten car with his weather beaten arm out the window called out, “Where’s this road go?” “Don’t know,” I told him, “I’m not from here. But I ran with it a while and turned back. It kept going.” He nodded and drove off the other way, not chancing it.

We were staying in a rented cabin for the two weeks, getting to know its ways. The water pressure was so poor that showering felt like being drooled on by a tall man. The arrangement of utensils in the kitchen drawers followed someone else’s mysterious logic. On the walls were formal portraits of several generations of someone’s family. A man in a too-big suit, a collar like a yoke around his neck sat with his wife standing behind him, her hand gripping his shoulder, his face suggesting a hostage situation.

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My father and I fish during the two weeks of vacation, and at no other time of the year. The rest of the seasons his boat sits in a corner of my wooded property, overturned on a couple of boards. When we went to load it before our trip, we turned it over to see an opossum bundled into a pile of leaves she’d plowed up against the gunwale. When she saw us and the light coming in, she rose and shambled off, seemingly unperturbed, leaving a cast of her body in the leaves.

In the borrowed cabin, I read over the “Fishing Hotspots” map of the lake.  It gave species list, depth profiles, and markers of shallow rocks and other hazards to the mariner unfamiliar with these waters. In the description it said, “sporting opportunities abound for both the resident and transient.” I liked the frankness of that word, transient. Most brochures and other materials call us visitors, vacationers, or at least tourists. Here we were, described with a term applicable to hobos, itinerants, those sheltering under overpasses.

I ran most days, and the late summer insects flew into me, down my throat, and up my nose. The locusts, gray armored, would fly, revealing their black crepe wings with yellow trim, bustling ahead like Victorian ladies hoisting their skirts to scurry. Frogs sheltered under the upturned kayaks every night, and a mouse that had died in the attic and was stinking was carted out of the house on a canoe paddle, like a pizza. Everything was high summer fetid and either breeding or rotting.

I liked to run up the hill and look far out to the lake below. An old jungle gym, heaved out of level by decades of frost, still stood in someone’s yard, closer in time now to the next generation than the one that first used it; been there so long, might as well wait for grandkids. Across the street a whole hillside had the purplish cast of a lowbush blueberry heath, scattered ablation till and a few ragged pines. The kind of farm you give up and abandon for the black prairie earths out west, once you hear about them, and let the woods seal over this place. At the elementary school, the signboard says, “Palermo Talent Show Canceled,” and nothing more.

Two weeks is enough to wear some patterns in a place. The same side of the bed, the same chair to read in at night, the kitchen drawers start to make some sense. But then our time is up, and we pack our things. The cabin is for sale, and it’s unclear if anyone else uses it. We found a newspaper from a few months before, but besides us, there may be no one staying here for a long time. When it’s time to go and drive back south, and pull the boat out of the lake and stow it another 50 weeks in the woods, we close and lock the door on the eddying dust streaming in the light beams, our sloughed skin and the wings of insects dried on the windowsills, and the spores of fungus, and the pollen clouds we moved through and then left. The dust settles and won’t be disturbed for some long time. What little wakes we leave.

On Anxiety

I have a picture of a brown trout taped into my notebook. The fish has two lampreys attached to the top of its head, rasping through its scales and slurping up its vital juices through the raw bed they scrape. The lampreys are velvety black, snake-like, with no discernable faces. They arc away in two directions, looking like a fool’s motley cap, or like two hoses in science fiction drawing all the fish’s thoughts away. When I think of the picture, I recall the fish appearing distressed, or stunned, but when I look at it again, the fish has no expression at all, or rather, a fish’s only expression—blank-eyed, slack jawed.

My summers are mostly my own, free of teaching duties. My kids are old enough not to need constant tending. But without any structure in the days, the idleness makes me anxious. I wander from room to room, carrying things around for a while and setting them down again, wasting time trying to decide how best to spend my time. By July, it was so bad that I re-activated a long dormant meditation app I’d downloaded in a previous difficult time. The meditations are short mindfulness exercises, focusing on this moment, tending the wayward child of the mind, jogging after it and steering it back with an arm around its shoulder. None of them were really doing the trick.

Anxiety governs democratically, opening the public square to any concern demanding a hearing. The Antarctic ice sheets slumping into the ocean jostle for space alongside: the plants growing in my front gutters, tall enough to flower; a Syrian father keening over his dead son; an email I was supposed to send; the rotten window sills on the north side of the house. I would go running for the short relief it gives– a few hours afterward when I am wrung out. Once, with the rest of the roadside litter, I saw a star-spangled lighter with red and blue lettering like something from a political campaign. As I passed it, I looked down and saw it read, “We’re Screwed 2016.”

IMG_0757When running wasn’t doing it, I headed north to do some hard walking. Two days and a night on the Kilkenny Trail north of the Presidentials in the White Mountains, and then a day spent circling the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge. The walk in was on a rough trail. I hiked hard, self-flaggelating with raspberry canes. Insects raised welts on my arms, and as I got closer to the ponds, they grew thicker. Ticks crawled up my legs. Something buzzed between the sheets of my Tyvek map. I put on my head net and trapped a hive of mosquitoes inside it with me. Increasingly deranged, I slapped and slapped, hitting myself in the glasses and knocking them sideways. I sat down at the pond edge and gave in. On my knee was a decrepit lightning bug, ragged winged, missing a leg. Butterflies landed on me, seeking my salt. Flower flies tapped me with their tube tongues splaying. A dragonfly with a torn wing rested on my thumb, his abdomen heaving in and out; he’d been in the wars. I ate my lunch and, unwilling to retrace the hard walk back on the trail I’d come in on, I took the longer circuit around the far side of the pond. On a wet dirt rail trail threatened by marsh on both sides, I sloshed through six inches of water and found a crayfish in the middle of the path. The only human I’d seen in a long while came around a bend: an old man with pants tucked into his socks and a wide brimmed hat on. “Awful lot of bugs,” he said. “Plenty,” I answered. In places along the trail, weathered wooden poles that used to hold telephone lines leaned toward the marsh like crosses. “These are the works of man,” I thought.

After a while, the trail met the pavement and I settled into a hard road walking speed past barns and weedy fields. I detoured into a little cemetery and there found a three foot tall silhouette of the Old Man of The Mountain cut in plywood, painted, and stood up among the headstones. The Man himself was long since lying in jumbled pieces at the base of a cliff over in Franconia Notch, but it appeared that his grave was here. Two stones over, a grave, a wife’s name underneath, and “Infant son 1913-1913.” The works of man. I walked as hard as I could and still call it walking. I looked along the shoulder and thought I saw a turtle (a rock), and a mouse (a run over pinecone). I took a little video of what the road looked like as I went, and how little was going on. As I lowered the camera and put it away, a bittern flew out of the streamside ahead of me. In my life, I’ve seen two standing still, pretending to be reeds, and one bursting up out of the weeds, both of us startled, but I’d never seen one flying at its own leisure. It went, wooden-winged, hingeing across the road. I kept on to my car.

I got back from the trip and the walking medicine wore off and the anxiety slipped its fingers between my ribs again and squeezed. I dutifully did my meditations each day, but felt only a little bit better, and only for a short time before the lampreys came rasping at my head again. Then, one afternoon, the meditation asked me to name the thoughts preying on me. To recognize that they aren’t me, that they are not intrinsic. “Call them by their names,” said the lisping Englishman on the recording. “Hello old Mrs. Doubt. Good afternoon, Mr. Self-Criticism.” I rolled my eyes under my closed lids, but listened on. Then, rather than Mrs. Doubt clad in her gray woolens, it was crows I began to see in my mind. Spark eyed and hopping, they closed on me.  They carried tools, little short sticks they’d stripped of bark and sharpened. They jumped around and peered in and fished into my head, down my ear canals with their sticks. The Englishman talked on, but I didn’t hear him much anymore. I could see, down in the dark, in the bone cup at the bottom of my skull, a white grub curled up. Down into the dark the ends of the crow sticks rasped and poked but could not quite reach. The grub shifted a little in the dark but that was all. It was imperturbable. The meditation ended, and the Englishman thanked me for joining him, and wished me well. I sat at the table with clear sight, crying. What euphoric relief it was to know the crows were not me, that I was cured.

Later on, out for a run again, the gleam off the revelation, I wondered if my true self really is a fat, dull grub, barely sensate, and what price I would pay for peace. And ego, vain ego, covets those glossy, blue-black feathers.

 

(Note: After a long hiatus during which I pondered trying to get my writing published, and thus, hoarded it, (since posting it here would make it largely unpublishable in conventional outlets), I gave up. I might as well have what people are interested in my writing just read it. So, welcome back, whoever you are, or just welcome.  -SC)

marcelo-leal-525139-unsplashTen days before Christmas, six before our 15thanniversary, my husband had a colonoscopy. Family history had brought him there, more than a decade before the average person needs to undergo the procedure, and we were, by a long shot, the youngest people in the outpatient waiting room. I had read the preparatory documentation decreeing that, if there were no responsible person to wheel him out and drive him home, groggy and half drugged, his procedure would be canceled. I would need to declare myself at the outset and be there at the end to receive him. He was property to be released to me. There was no provision for unclaimed baggage.

In the week or so leading up to the day, as the phases of his preparation progressed (beige bland diet, clear liquids) I thought about carting him out in a wheelchair. They said that would probably be necessary and I did not like it. In my whole life, I’ve only ever been hospitalized for childbirth, and he never at all since I’ve known him. His doctor says that, since he is a male who survived his twenties without dying of stupidity or risk-taking, he really doesn’t even need checkups until his heart attack risk climbs when he hits his 50s. Our bodies are healthy, fit, do what we ask them to without complaint. I know this will not be so forever, but I only know it intellectually. I don’t really know it in ligament and muscle. We take our physical abilities for granted, and our intellectual ones, the skills by which we make our livings, broaden with time and maturity. The thought that they may also decline and be lost one day fills me with black dread when I think of it. Most of the time though, I coast along in a disbelieving state of gratitude for the life I have, the two people I made, the one I married. Once in a while, I wonder if this coasting is the same one the coyote felt every time he careened off the cliff, but didn’t realize it right away. The note about the wheelchair was a glimpse down at the thin air below us.

When we got married, the shortest day of the year, the longest night, I had put little thought into what I would wear, and much into what would be read at the wedding. We chose Robert Frost’s The Master Speedand have its final stanza framed in our bedroom with drawings I did of two wrens, two oak leaves, two hiking boots. Every morning I look at it, and sometimes its cadence bounds through my head too, for no particular reason. It accompanies me all the time.

Two such as you with such a master speed

Cannot be parted nor be swept away

From one another once you are agreed

That life is only life forevermore

Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

 

One night, in a rare moment of being fully still, I lay in bed looking at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s Japanese, I think, and I know next to nothing about art, so I don’t know what medium it is—some kind of paint, or some kind of woodblock print. It’s of two ducks in flight against a blue sky—a winter type sky like now, when the sun comes up only high enough to scrape the sides of the bowl of the day and then go down again. The perspective of the picture flattens the ducks, so the wing of the one in the foreground seems to lay across the neck of the one flying behind. They look like they are interfering with each other. Not like “wing to wing” I thought. And then, “oar to oar,” I thought, and I realized I had, all these years, missed the point. When I chose that poem, when I was twenty one, straight off a Bachelor’s degree in English, pleased with my literariness, I was smitten by its being addressed to us. “Two such as you,” it said, and I answered, “Yes, tell us more about us. Tell us how we’re joining together, tell us about two making one, tell us about union, tell us how there’s no space between us at all, we’re so well matched.” The poem flattered my idea of love, and marriage, it told of defying the laws of thermodynamics even, of climbing, like metaphysical salmon, “back up a stream of radiance to the sky/ and back through history up the stream of time.” I heard, “two such as you,” and “together” and I preened and strutted and listened not very well to the last bit that defined it all. Lying in bed, “oar to oar,” I thought, and the obviousness of the image now slapped me broadside. I had, I realized, retained only a vague idea of what that phrase meant. Blame my years of prep school and my awe of the tall, lanky sorts who rowed crew for my image of the oars in series, one behind the next, each person pulling in synchrony with the rest of the eight, or however many those sleek, expensive boats carry. How had I failed to notice that that wasn’t right at all? I was too taken with the idea of marriage as a fusion, of a joining, of two-become-one that I had not noticed that the poem actually set us away from each other, that we were, quite literally, not in the same boat. And if we each row our own boats, then there has to be more than two oars-lengths between us even, there has to be space between the oar tips too, to allow each of us free movement, to keep the eddying turbulence from pulling each others’ blades underwater, to stay the course.

I thought about the impending procedure, and the wheelchair, and the space opening up between us. However transiently, he was going into the country of the sick, the sedated, the passive, the patient. I was to remain in the waiting room in the land of the able bodied, alert, free-moving, and would receive him when the ferryman anesthesiologist brought him back from his dim, Versed dream. It was not the idea of the wheelchair that bothered me. It was the oars. If we were to keep rowing up the stream with our master speed, we’d need both sets of hands on our own oars. We’d need to not interfere with each other’s progress, and we could neither of us carry the other one. I remembered that from years before, when I’d been in labor with each of our children. He and I were in the room together, he was beside me, doing anything I asked, tiring himself out pressing on the sides of my hips for hours, when I told him I felt like my pelvis was coming apart. But after twenty, thirty hours of it all, he would be falling asleep in the chair by the window while I labored and rode contraction after contraction. I wondered how he could drift off to sleep in those conditions. But those conditions were entirely my own. My own internal geography, altering landscape, changeable weather, and tectonic shift. He could not know what it felt like in my body. We were not in the same boat.

Now, eight years after our second son’s birth, in a different hospital, in a different city, I waited in a pre-procedure room with him until it was time for them to take him away. He’d had an IV dose of Benadryl and was mostly sleeping, and rousing periodically to tell me it was fine if I left. He was just sleeping, after all. A nurse documented any jewelry he was wearing: only his wedding ring. Then they came for him and wheeled his stretcher away and I went the other way to go wait. As I walked down the hallway, I looked left to see a set of doors open to a parallel hallway. A patient was being pushed along, supine, sleepy, toward the procedure room, and after a moment, I startled and saw it was him. They were going the same speed I was, down the parallel hallway, the nurses, also able-bodied, striding, my gait matching theirs. But they were bearing him away and they disappeared past the doorway as I went to read and watch people waiting.

Why were we married on the solstice? People ask me that, or, if we were looking for celestial or solar significance, why not the summer solstice, the longest day? Or an equinox, the balance points of the year? The truth is, it was an accident that it fell on a solstice day. We just wanted a winter wedding, we liked December for it, and the church would already be decorated for Christmas, saving us money on flowers. But now that I think about it, it suits. The pagans all knew about this time of the year, the long descent into darkness, the hold-your-breath-and-hope-the-sun-comes-back rituals, the stop, and the turning point when the pendulum starts its swing back. The unmoving sun shining the same whether we turn our faces toward it or away, and we are finished turning away. Though the winter will get colder, it will get no darker.

When his exam was all over, and he’d been given a mostly clean bill of health but for a follow up in six months just to be sure, they summoned me, calling out for “The Courchesne Family” and I went to claim him. It turned out he didn’t need a wheelchair after all. He was fairly steady, though slower than usual, with a little tendency to drift left as he walked. I walked alongside him, watchful, bracing a little, gauging the right distance to keep, the right balance, the right speed.  And then I brought us home.