Forgive me for being so plain, but all things aside – including the alchemy of eternity being the steady stream of each moment pouring into the next – my purpose for being here today is to plunge into the water, as far as I can tell.
This lake, viewed from the sky, takes the shape of a long crooked finger. Or you can go higher, to where the atmosphere brushes its backbone up against space, to see that finger as a fleshless bone. But from here, submerged in the warm and cool pockets of earth’s embryonic fluid, the lake is smooth, polished, for the moment undisturbed, except for the fading ripples made by me. It exists in a moment of perfect silence sought by many, found by few. If you listen closely enough, you can hear it whispering:
“May my breath be your breath. My heat, yours. My fluid strength, my supple resilience, yours. May you give up your crowded loneliness to me, press me to your forehead as a cool cloth easing a fever. Nothing but the chest can contain the heart, nothing can protect it but the rib cage.”
The lake’s words ring true. Sometimes the walls of alone-ness press in on us, even as we long for solitude. Sometimes we long for something we think we don’t have. Sometimes we forget that we too are part of nature – that we, too, are included in this thing that so often astounds us.
Every day I make a list of things that need to be done, things that might slip through the fine mesh net of short-term memory.
Today, the list contained more items than I could possibly accomplish. So I did what you might expect – I pushed it down into the folds of my left-hand pocket, tightened up my shoes and went walking instead, to space out and observe a planet that happens to be a perfect distance from this particular sun in order for life to exist and thrive. I took along a pen and paper, because when you’re panning for gold, you never know what you might find.
Later, when I empty my pockets for the day, I’ll look over the list again, to see what must be transferred to tomorrow’s list. Some items might no longer ring with such importance, and will simply be discarded. And of course I’ll need to consider what standing I’m in with the relatives I failed to call, friends I didn’t message, professional contacts I never emailed, bills I didn’t pay, appointments I missed.
Then I’ll go outside and watch the last strands of milky light recede beyond the treetops, revealing steadfast Jupiter like a celestial anchor. And a little ways over in the sky, the ember of Mars rocking in a luminous cradle.
And then, as if that isn’t enough, the fireflies will come out with their earthbound constellation of flashing lamps, and I’ll hear the neighbor cooking dinner through her open kitchen window.
Think of the way clouds roll across a big sky. Think of the embroidery of a spider, how hard it works to put food on the table. Think how familiar you are with the contents of your wallet, purse, kitchen cabinets, the scent of your own pillows.
I wonder if this is how birds feel about their nests, the lake-shore, that meadow there, this hillside over here. What would it feel like to make your bed on a riverbank, to have a stone as a nightstand? Your lamp is the moon. The stillness, your book collection.
In this very moment, however, walking the dividing path between meadow and woods, I feel so much better just knowing there’s a fox who lives around here, in the company of his own nose and tail, and whatever family he might have.
His fur is not the red of all the cliches, not the red of the slushy I had in Rhode Island on a 90 degree day, not the red of the cherry-lime rickey I ordered at Tom’s Diner in Brooklyn containing a lifetime’s worth of grenadine, but the red produced by things of the earth.
I wish him luck.
Walking alone in nature can be sacred, healing and rejuvenating. The motor of your mind gradually stops its whirring and quiets down, like a swarm of locusts moving further into the distance. Constrictions loosen. Stale transforms to Vivifying. You have made some space around yourself, and you are participating in creation. The sights and sounds of the organic world support you as a hammock might, allowing you to sway, to rock in the cradle of your underneath layers.
When walking alone, you don’t owe anybody anything. No one owes you. In doing so much less than you would otherwise be doing, you are doing so much more. You are away from how you are thought of by others, even those who perhaps know you best. And your own judgments begin to lift too, as the song of what you know begins to fall away.
You are a pearl rolling in a silver bowl.
Evergreen trees take a solemn stance,
seem to long for rain in their crooked row,
seem to pity the quivering cottonwood leaves,
and decline to change for the coming snow.
As is so often the case, it was only me at my own side, constant companion.
Eyes on the next bend in the road, waving mosquitoes away unsuccessfully, rounded stones half-buried in the ground pushing at my feet through the soles of my shoes.
The light softens now.
Cloud-shadows of evening begin to lick the hills and valleys, entreating this corner of the world not to sleep.
Instead, these children of the stars implore us to burn candles, and pay attention far into the night.
I remember my mom yelling at my dad through the phone, and wondering when I might get to meet him. I remember meeting him, the sound of his laugh, the slope of his shoulder, how he rubbed his feet together at the end of the day, how he took the list my mom had made of everything I couldn’t eat and wadded it up and threw it away.
I remember meeting my son for the first time at age 16, how we hugged, how he walked with a swagger and reminded me of a cross between James Dean and my own father.
I remember “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac playing on my mom’s record player as I lay on the floor on my stomach trying to recreate illustrations of Garfield and Charlie Brown.
I remember meeting my grandfather and thinking his skin looked like alligator hide, and noticing the faded blue anchor stamped into the side of his upper arm, and how he laughed when I ate a hot pepper off the bush in his yard.
I remember marveling at a pregnant harvest moon while driving with my mom from Astoria to Portland at night in an old Audi Fox, how we talked and laughed and sang along with the tinny-sounding radio.
I remember the crippling crush I had on a girl i didn’t really know in my junior year, just hooked on her looks and the ideas I had about her in my teenage head.
I remember the first time I had a wet dream, waking confused to a damp sheet pressed against the heat of my thighs, my adam’s apple tight in my throat as I slipped out of bed in search of a cool drink of water.
The other night I made some popcorn and settled onto the couch to watch “Blackfish”. Somehow I missed all the buzz about it from last year, so I went into it blissfully ignorant of what I was about to learn. What started out as a seemingly harmless documentary quickly became an animal lover’s nightmare, haunting me far into the night as I lay in the dark reflecting on human nature, greed, and grief for the loss of majesty and grace among captive orca whales.
For me, this chilling film illustrates the unique intelligence of killer whales versus human intelligence gone bad, and highlights the price to be paid for tinkering with the animal kingdom in the interest of monetary gain. We are introduced to Tilikum, taken from his mother’s side when he was a young calf in 1983, and used to entertain families at Sealand Of The Pacific on Vancouver Island. His oceanic home had been ripped away and replaced with a prison cell of a holding tank, and whenever Tilikum failed to respond to the instructions of his trainers, food was withheld from him. Not surprisingly, he eventually killed a trainer. Sealand Of The Pacific closed down shortly thereafter, and Tilikum was moved to Seaworld in Orlando, Florida. The whole event was swept under the rug – none of the whale-handlers were informed of the trainer’s death.
Inevitably, a string of incidents involving Tilikum followed, as well as incidents with other orcas as well. At present there are around 35 recorded cases of captive orca attacks on humans, several of which were fatal. There are 6 recorded cases of orcas threatening humans in the wild. None were fatal, and they appear to be cases of mistaken identity: orcas mistaking humans for seals.
It is the bigger picture, though – beyond the specifics of Tilikum’s life – that cannot be ignored as deeply disturbing: the exploitation of orca whales (by water parks, in particular) as a means to profit. Animal families separated in order to sell tickets to human families. Animal children taken from their mothers, so that they may entertain and delight human children. All this rendered more cruel and more horrifying by the fact that orcas are incredibly social, profoundly emotional, highly intelligent creatures, who have a part of the brain that humans do not have.
I tossed and turned for hours that night, finally drifting into sleep. But my sleep was uneasy, and full of dreams about the catastrophic karma the human race is making for itself.
“I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark word, and the only word I had was ‘wow’. -On The Road