Sunday, October 28, 2012

eye of Osiris

I could see it standing in the water. Perfectly still. A reflection of itself fell into the water below, and the bird stood motionless and I stood motionless and not even the wind disturbed our consideration of one another. I moved first, the crane so placid and immobile that I felt pinned by the eye of Osiris, and there were places I had been and things I had done that I didn't want the gaze of the bird to unlock. The air was empty of sounds, that quiet time when the haze and heat from the afternoon still weighs heavily, too heavily to commit a crime or to start an expedition. Even the mosquitoes lay still and satiated, and the crane, satisfied as I turned away, spread its great wings and rose above the water. The movement of the bird broke the silence, or the flight of the bird brought with it the evening, for in the swamp it is hard to tell where myths end and superstition begins.

In amongst these reeds I had built my first playhouse, I had paddled an old rowboat, I had hidden from science fair projects and school plays, and then I had left. There was no particular reason to leave, but there was no particular reason to stay, and when you're a kid you get that itchy feeling that maybe there's something worth knowing about that's just behind the curtain of kudzu and moss. Back in those days it was okay to hitch, no one thought twice of a kid and a guitar ambling along beside the road, because every other car was full of kids doing exactly the same thing.

I would say that those were the adventurous years of my youth, full of threatening situations and dubious encounters; but, not really. That all came later. No, during those years no amount of dirty cheeks and greasy hair could hide the Sunday school that was wide and clear on my face, and so mostly I got picked up by a lot of Buicks being driven by grandmothers. I had no idea how many grandmothers there were on the road, going between places, but a kid hell bent on seeing real life doesn't want to see the view from a Buick, so I settled down on the coast with everyone else, and we didn't have much to eat and paid our rent in piles of small change. If you've read one memoir of a misspent youth, you've read them all, so I'll spare you the details. Things worked out and then they didn't work out and then it was middle age and your brain starts playing tricks with your memory.

Like I couldn't remember if I had had a motorboat or a rowboat, of if I had colonized an island or some unvisited corner of our back lot, and did we really ever see alligators in church or was that a big brother myth, and the spirit lights that lined up in the branches of the swamp oaks -- were they still there? What made them glow so brightly when the moon dashed behind the veil of the clouds? At night I began to dream of my childhood, but my dreams were not of the childhood I remembered, and I wondered: were my dreams true, or was my memory true, or had the vision of youth been clouded by fantasy and fairy tales?

There were lots of reasons not to go back, especially on account of not having written to anyone in all those years, but there were lots of reasons to get out of the corner I had boxed myself into, and the reeds were as good a place to go into as anywhere. Maybe they wouldn't welcome me with a hog-roasting, but I didn't think they'd run me out of town. It's funny, when you go back to someplace, the things that don't really matter. I didn't take the bus. I didn't take the train. I didn't fly. I didn't hitch. The world changes and I changed, too, and the roads are no longer full of rosy-cheeked adventurers hopping across the country. I drove, not a car of any notable appearance, nothing with a personality attached to it like a Volvo station wagon or a Land Rover or a BMW. Nothing that would qualify as a jalopy. My car didn't say I'd made it, but it didn't say I despaired of ever belonging to polite society.

I drove; the roads were open and wide and free, the skies were clear, and I refused to become maudlin or sentimental. That's harder than you realize, thirty hours in a car and most of the stations playing Johnny Cash, headed back to where the past happened. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to get nostalgic and start to remembering a fuzzy version of how things had been, but that doesn't do anybody any good. There was suddenly a moment when the kudzu came back, and I rolled down the windows, and smelled, smelled as hard as I could, but everywhere these days smells the same. There was the scent of diesel and the scent of french fries and the scent of asphalt in the sun, and so I rolled the windows back up and there was Johnny Cash urging sentimentality all over again.

What I remembered were small bungalows in untidy disarray, a Methodist church, a school built in the best post-War styles of institutions; I remembered the grocery store and the post office and the spot where newspapers were delivered on Saturday afternoons, Sunday early edition. How did they already know what the Sunday news was going to be, to deliver it on Saturday? Anything could happen, I'd always thought, and those papers would all be wrong, they would have printed the wrong future. No one could explain this to me, as a child, or maybe I never asked, or I only asked the wrong people.

The town had grown, boomed with refinery money, and all spread out where there used to be houses up on stilts were funny little suburban subdivisions, full of the faux Tudor mansions in every development everywhere. I got lost trying to find my old house, caught in an endless strip of King Arthur cul-de-sacs and Guinevere Lanes looping around fountains. They had tried to turn the spongey ground into lawns, but it seemed ephemeral, imported. When I extracted myself from Lancelot Avenue and passed the show house for Merry Men Estates, there was the live oak I remembered, the cluster of bungalows gathered together against the onslaught of development. It didn't look like a place where fairy lanterns would be lit in the trees after dark, or like a place where the reeds grew so thick entire islands were hidden from view. It looked like the future home of an outlet mall or an interior design showroom, more merchandise for the growth of houses.

There were people in the houses, though, they weren't bulldozed or abandoned, and suddenly I realized I had no idea what to say to them. If my family had died or moved on, well, that was that. And if my family was still there, well, was that better or worse? I had no idea. Johnny Cash had been singing and I had refused to get all soppy and now I needed a script, or a plausible excuse, or something. There was a place near the road just dry enough and wide enough to leave my car, so I parked and walked and tried to think and tried not to think. The road ended near the brackish water, and dotting the horizon were oil wells, and everywhere the smell of refineries. I guess that's the smell of money these days.

There had always been an old boat that only leaked a little bit tucked up anywhere a road ran out, and so I searched around and found one, a rowboat peeling blue with a canoe paddle underneath. It floated well enough, and the water flowed around the reeds and under the moss; under the distant canopy of the rigs everything else was empty. I kept listening for the frogs, the swamp children, the shrimping boats, and the first creature I saw was that crane.

I had been told that long ago we were all hatched from the eggs of cranes, that we lived near the water to stay with our family. In the stare of the crane was wrapped not only the righteousness of the gods but also the expectations of the family, the unblinking stare of my crane-like grandmother as she had me recite Bible verses and weave crosses out of palm leaves before Easter. As the crane flew away, I could see the remains of an old wooden post, and I paddled towards it, certain it was not the old dock, but not so certain as to be willing to pass by. There was the croaking of frogs and the whirring of insects as night descended, and, as I held on to the old post, the fairy lights in the trees began to glow with life.

They were warm, the warm yellow of candles, about the size of baseballs, and they floated above head level, distributed among the trees. As a child I thought they led to a magical fantastic place somewhere else, some other world, and night after night I would follow the fairy lights, certain they would reveal their secrets. They always led me back to where I had started, at dawn, next to my boat; there was no secret gate to a special place. But, still, that sense of maybe, maybe, beckoned. No one was making a pot roast for my dinner, no school master expected to quiz me over state capitols in the morning, and there was nothing else except a Holiday Inn Express with oil workers prices waiting for me. I docked, found the dry land amidst the reeds, and looked up. The fairy lights glowed as evenly as any street light in any city, and I stepped under the trees, not quite sentimental and not quite full of belief in old tales, but wondering, if this time, something would be different.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

the folding and unfolding of a finally released secret

Every evening the tree folded its branches into itself. Every morning it unfurled like an umbrella. It was the tree that we would use as base in our games of tag, hide and seek; the tree that we climbed and picnicked under. It was the only tree we knew that folded and unfolded itself together, keeping a curfew all its own.

As a child, I thought that every town had a tree that opened and closed, because that must be the way of trees, and it was only years later that this ignorance was corrected. Then I wondered why no outsiders had ever come to marvel at our tree, and then I began to doubt my own memory. Folding and unfolding trees were a natural impossibility; surely it was some other type of plant, or a trick of light, or some other prosaic cause of what we called our origami tree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

there but for the

So, right, at this point what I ought to have done was step as hard as I could on the gas pedal and get back to paying bills and making Sunday dinner, but although I knew that would have been the right thing to do, my foot pressed down on the brake pedal instead, and I found myself stopping in the road, not caring that I was blocking traffic. Years of passing by the shrine and just barely noticing it, and suddenly I have to be right in with whoever these people were and whatever vortex drew them in. And even though I didn't really want to take part, soon enough I was "excuse me" and "pardon me" and "sorry, ma'am" until I had elbowed my way up to the first line of onlookers, and I could see what had been engraved into the marble of the bench.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

to contemplate


There are many things in this world which I do not understand. Some of these are a source of joy, and some of befuddlement, and some lead to all sorts of dark and turbid emotions best not dwelt upon. In the category of baffled joy I share "Time and Material," a dumpster from the charming city of Ottawa.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

deep in the heart

The big, empty road, big, empty sky. Out there on the horizon are mountains, or hills, but it is hazy and distances are hard to judge. I would say "no destination" or "empty destination," but that wouldn't be true, even though I might wish it to be. There's a destination, I just don't want to get there any time soon. Truth be told, I don't want to get there, ever. It's all well and good to talk about being an adult and having free will and controlling your own destiny, but when the phone call comes, we're all called to reckoning, and we all get into the car.

I remember driving this road way back when, back before I knew that roads could look any different. Back then I had never even thought about highways through forests or winding mountain roads or bridges over shipping channels or tunnels under bays. I had never thought about ferries or beltways or choosing the inland route to avoid the city, because back then none of these existed. It was all and only big empty road, big empty sky, distant haze, shimmer of sunlight brighter, ever brighter. In those days if there was an old church or barn falling to bits by the highway, well, that was just someone else's grand dream blown all to bits, and that's what happens.

Every so often the freight train would lumber past, endless rows of cars, matching containers full of anything from West Texas Intermediate to nuclear waste sent out to be buried in No Man's Land, to cotton to cattle. None of the compartments were labeled, and being so far away it would have been hard to read the labels anyway. Somehow, whenever there was a train, there was also a field of cows. I don't know how that worked, but I'd be driving along surrounded by the emptiness, and suddenly I'd be driving parallel to a train and there would be a field of cattle, then the train would end and the cattle would thin out. Sometimes there were livestock without the train; but not very often.

There aren't as many of either, anymore, cattle or freight trains. This drought has seen to the loss of all the cows, empty parched fields even drier than they used to be. I don't know what happened to the trains, but they're almost disappeared, as well.

This land used to oppress me with its emptiness, I'd go out at night when there was hardly any moon at all, and the Milky Way would spin and turn all around me, and I'd get dizzier and dizzier trying to see where the river of stars began and ended, spinning, spinning until I collapsed in the empty field, and had to close my eyes against the endless sky. Never make a promise under the open sky, it disappears and gets hopelessly lost when there is nothing to hold it true. Never believe a promise made under the open sky, for the promise ends as quickly as the words dissipate, language becomes breath and then is lost.

Promises were made, in good faith, and faith was deep and pure and elemental. For how could we not have faith, watching the lightning storm appear from no where, come dancing in from the distance, a sizzle on my arms, and then everything is changed. The air sparkles for the rest of the night, and then the sun rises and the skies fill with limitless yellow and blue. Faith brought us locusts and snakeskins and bluejay feathers, faith was as ever-present as the geodes in the rocks we cracked open under the railroad bridge.  Faith was not in god or in man, but faith held in the workings of a clockwork universe, that tomorrow and today and yesterday followed the same patterns of light and life. Promises were dangerous, promises were the province of god and man. God makes us a promise, he speaks through a burning bush, but god is a wrathful god, and withholds promises until punishments are meted out and justice is served. The promises of god cannot be understood by the minds of men, and so I kept my faith in the sunset but relinquished the inconstancies of a vengeful god.

The promises of mankind were a different sort altogether, for there were no simple promises, there were only promises with addenda and conditional clauses and expectations and substitutions and maybe thens. I watched the live oaks shudder in the wind, declined the promises, and held strong to my faith in the cottonwood and the river. Autumn, and then winter, and the endless dry summer where the air shimmers and the afternoon never ends, and the wide open sky and the empty road.

On the road, the pine trees arrived first, saplings and then towering giants, each pine cone a Christmas present, the ground draped with needles. The pines chased the sky away, and then the land rose up to meet the sky, the mountains seen so often from a distance brought into focus. The sky a different color, having to compete with the pines and the mountains, and there is very little lightning, and the stars are less bright. My faith, the deep current of faith, begins to thin as the landscape changes, and when the road enters a tunnel on the side of a mountain and comes out over the blue, bright blue of a glacial lake, the last of my childhood deserts me and I dive deep into the icy water. There are flowers, tiny purple flowers, and towering oak trees, and meadow grasslands, and the roads switch back upon themselves so frequently I do not know which way I am oriented at all, or which direction the road will lead.

All of this is new, and at every turn out, the car stops, and we all open and pour out from the doors, and gaze, and gaze. I cannot believe this is the same sky I have seen my entire life, for nothing about it is the same. It is a different depth, a different color, voices have an altered tone, the stars are in the wrong place. I look at the people around me, my companions, my reflection. We appear unchanged, but how can we be the same person we were, when even the lodestone of our faith, the sky, has changed? I wonder; I do not know. I hold out my hands, and there is a cry of "What are you doing? Get back in the car!" and at night under the stars the night feels slower, smaller, quieter.

The world of yellow openness is a lifetime away and it recedes, and I forget it. When the sky does not command every view, every eye, then my mind suddenly feels open to see things that were hidden before. I see chipmunks and rabbits and heron and the thousands of mirrors reflected by sunlight on the pond. I see joy and love and hate and despair distilled down into their essences, thick syrups in tones of red and amber and purple and green. I see the shimmer of recognition in the air when arriving some place I've been before, and I see the hollow outline of my shape waiting for me in places I have never been. When words are spoken they no longer dissolve in the endless sky, but they get caught on branches, under leaves, in the bend of a stream, at the tip of a bird's nest. Going into the woods I surprise a squirrel, and read the scrap words it has harvested along with its acorns.

Where words are trapped, held, and remembered, I begin to believe promises, and in belief in promises the corner which used to be filled with faith an lightning is now filled with words and intentions. Here, under this rock: this is the clause, as it was spoken, as we agreed. The air grows thick with words and with promises, and in the winter the skies drop snow and we ski over hills of stories. My bare feet reach into the mulch of generations of conversations, and the days lengthen into years, and I forget, I forget.

I forget the open sky and the omnipresent night and the translucence of humans on the landscape, until the summons arrives. The horizon drops and empties, the air thins, and I am alone without even an echo for company. The vastness of the suddenly empty universe is indescribable, and, disoriented, I lay upon the ground and there is only sky, only sky. This is not my home, for without the anchor of faith or the ballast of promises, I do not exist, there is nothing to hold my incoherent atoms together, and the urgency of the summons dissolves in the wind. For here by the empty road I am no longer myself, I have no compass to guide me, and there is nowhere to go, except deep into the heart of the heavens in the endless night sky.