Friday, March 23, 2012
It was good to hear from you the other day, however briefly. Even if you only have time for an emailed smile, I will smile back.
I was going to mention this earlier, but--wait, that makes it sound like a big deal, doesn't it? It isn't, not particularly, just a thought that popped into my head to share, and then popped out again before I got the chance--until now, obviously.
What popped into my mind was daffodils. You know the new bicycle shelter on campus? I saw it the other week, all covered with snow. I'd never seen it completed before, but I helped dig one of the post holes, and I felt mildly pleased to see part of my story embodied that way in the bones of the school.
I used to have a similar reaction on the campus of my boarding school. The headmaster (and that's what he called himself, not his real title, which was executive director) had some notion that by scheduling manual labor into the school day, he would give us something to be proud of. In practice I think most of the students simply felt put-upon, and the fact that kids who got in trouble had to do more such work did not help. There was always a subtle difference between the way the headmaster thought the school worked and how it actually worked. But I liked the labor, and once I heard him suggest that I should, I did take some pride in walking around campus seeing bushes I had trimmed or things I had moved or cleaned or painted....
It was a different feeling from how I feel about jobs I've actually had some ongoing responsibility for--even when those jobs were on the boarding school campus. For a while I was on a student grounds keeping team, and I helped clean and prune and water for months on end. I liked that work, too, and took pride in it, as I've liked and taken pride in doing things with my hands ever since. I like being responsible for the upkeep of something. I like, especially, having an employee's access and connection to a garden, a restaurant, a forest, a canyon, the chance to really interact with a place that most people are only allowed to visit.
Central to that other feeling is, I think, a sense of control or autonomy; I am responsible for x,y, and z, and within the limits of that responsibility, I can help make something happen. Central, too, is the sense of importance, not in an egotistic sense, but knowing that this thing needs to be done; I am useful.
The work crews we usually had at boarding school contained neither autonomy nor importance. If we hadn't done the work, the paid maintenance crew would have done it. Since we worked inefficiently, and since we had to be supervised by one or more faculty members as we worked, our free labor may have cost the school more then just having the staff do it....And of course, we had no choice in the matter at all. We could neither decline our work crew duties nor volunteer for additional work, and we had no voice in deciding what our task would be or when or why. Everything at that school was either forbidden or mandatory, always. So it was a small, almost manufactured kind of pride that could be had as a result.
For entirely different reasons, I felt the same way about the bike shelter at grad school. Again, I had no say or control over the project as a whole--no responsibility for the work, and no real ownership of the project. I am not sure I would have selected the bike shelter as the best use of resources, for one, and for another, the machine standing by to finish the post-holes after we got tired or bored was an obvious testament to the pointlessness of our labor. A dozen volunteers worked for an hour or two to save a machine with a paid operator maybe two minutes.
And yet, just as I would always pass the forsythia that I helped prune and think Oo! I saw that bike shelter and though Oo! I did that!
The forsythia, of course, has now either been pruned many times since, or it has grown out into a leafy, looping sprazil, or it has died. It was a temporary form of Oo! But the daffodils may be different.
The campus of my boarding school was on a couple of acres of what had once been a horse farm, and the property sloped slowly down from the foot of a ridge behind campus to the shore of a lake about a half a mile in front of the gate. The slope had clearly been flattened in two places, once underneath the old mansion where the offices and some of the dorms were, and once underneath nothing but the sky. I suppose the secondary flattening must once have supported the stables, or perhaps an earlier iteration of the mansion. We used it as an occasional athletic field. But the far corner of the flat field was some ten or fifteen feet above where the sloping ground was supposed to be, so there was this steep, square, grassy cliff there we called the Edge of the World. It was a good place for rolling down. Rolling off the Edge of the World was actually a scheduled dorm activity sometimes.
A few years into my stay as a student there, I was on a work crew assigned to plant daffodils along the base of the Edge of the World. I thought it was a bad spot for a flower bed, as the flowers would interfere with rolling for part of the year, but my opinion was not requested in the matter, so I helped plant the bulbs. They came up every year after that, at least as long as I was at the school.
I was not generally at liberty to go smell the daffodils, or otherwise check on them--as I mentioned, everything was either against the rules or mandatory there, and whatever else I may have received while I was at school, liberty wasn't available. But I could see them from the main driveway of the school, where I sometimes had occasion to walk. The driveway was lined by huge, old sugar maples, and I remember walking down between their wrinkled rows, between the new spring leaves opening like small, green umbrellas, and looking out and seeing the daffodils blooming there by the Edge of the World. Daffodils I planted, part of the bones of the school for years, because of me.
The school is closed now, the campus sold. I don't know what has become of it. It's part of my story, but I don't know to what extent I was ever able to add to the school's story, and the school itself is no longer telling its story, being dead as an institution. The school itself is no longer listening, can no longer hear.
But I wonder whether the daffodils still bloom there in the spring.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
I have a song stuck in my head. But I can't tell you what it is. It's Monty Python, which should give you a clue--go see the recording of their live performance at Hollywood Bowl. It's the one at the beginning, where it turns out they're not wearing pants. Go see it, if you haven't yet, as I think you'll laugh your head off, but pretend you didn't hear about it from me. It's a love song, rather sweet in its robust frankness, but, shall we say, rather graphic in its physicality.
The reason this thing is stuck in my head is that Chris and I watched another Monty Python DVD tonight. We seem to be on some kind of kick. We'd watched the thing, and were making our way through the extra features, when I heard something familiar outside--a regular chirping that did not belong to a frog. I jumped up and ran to the door--from the other room, Monty Python swelled in volume; "...AND TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME!"
The chirping stopped, I returned to the sofa. Presently, a lull in the comedy permitted the chirping or hooting to again enter my ear, so I ran to the door and "I'M A LUMBERJACK, AND I'M OK!"
hoo! hoo! hoo! hoo!
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE
hoo! hoo! hoo!
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE!
hoo! hoo! hoo! hoo! hoo! hoo! hoo!
This went on for some time, the miraculous wildness implied by the chirping--a high, short, regular whistle--bracketed nicely by the manic insanity of brilliantly funny Brits, before I finally got a clear listen at the chirps. It was--did you guess it already? A saw whet owl. I don't know anything else that sounds like that, and that is exactly what it sounded like. I like owls; their calls are simple enough for my untrained ear to remember, and saw whets are one of those I know. I spent a season helping to band them, and I heard the audio lure often enough that I can mimic the call pretty well. Hearing that call from a real owl, as I have a few times in Vermont and New Hampshire, always feels miraculous to me, some little oo! of delight, like when some wild thing, or a kitten, decides to trust you for a moment. They do migrate through here--we're about three miles from the banding station as the crow (or owl) flies--but I've never heard one calling in the yard before. I didn't think they liked it here. But here one is.
What is he saying? Maybe he's just saying the same thing to other owls that I can hear from him; owl! owl! owl! I am here! I am here! I am here! Maybe there's more nuance to it than that. I assume that the call has something to do with sex and territory, that even if he is just saying owl!owl!owl! over and over again, he means to be heard and hopes to be found by another owl.
If so, then his repetition is not very different from the Monty Python song repeating itself in my head, a song intended to be funny in its startling crassness, but there's really nothing offensive about it, only that things like that generally aren't said in public, much less by a barbershop group standing elegant and manly in nice shirts and long aprons. The song is funny because of the juxteposition of a kind of shameless animal generosity with the civilized, cultured conttext. The Pythons are like the owl twice, actually; once in the frank and simple desire of the lyrics, and once in to the extent to which the Pythons were communicating on that stage, as opposed to playing characters who were communicating, what they were saying was probably more or less their own name. I am here! I am here! I am here! Those who had business with them, who wished to interact with them for whatever reason (for example, those who wished to give them money to be hilarious), would hear the song and know more or less what they were about. How much of communication is really saying one's own name, over and over, so those who have business with us know who we are and what we're about.
Chris and I, too, owe our relationship to a song. A year or so before I met him, I heard the Jimmy Buffet song, "Off the Coast of Carolina," for the first time, and I thought, yes--that's the kind of relationship I want. Grown-up, sane, dedicated.
and the walls that won't come down,
we can decorate or climb
or find some way to get around
cause I'm still on your side.
Like, some hormone-addled twenty-something might sing about being one with, inseparable from the beloved, some some reverse form of amoebic vegetative reproduction, but people always have walls, privacies, limits, hang-ups. Some walls won't come down. Ok, fine, let's decorate them.
I didn't tell Chris about any of this until we got to know each other pretty well, but maybe some part of me that's wiser then the rest knew what I was looking for, and knew when I found it. Maybe in thinking of the song, I somehow broadcast it into the ether, as that owl broadcasts his song, my statement about who I am and what I'm about. Maybe Chris heard it, recognized it, and flew in.
Our anniversary is in a few days. Turns out, I like being married. I never expected to get married when I was younger, and here I am, migrating through my world with a partner, decorating walls, and still on the same side. From the bottom of my heart, as Jimmy Buffet says.
If you were anywhere nearby, I'd offer you a slice of our anniversary cake; chocolate with coconut buttercream icing.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Well, he’s done it again. Chris has put on some song late in the evening, waiting for me to be ready to go to bed, and the song turns out to be one I’ve known forever, and here it comes flying into my consciousness carrying so much emotional baggage that it ought to have a surcharge added to its ticket to cover the extra weight. No, not Jimmy Buffet this time; Peter, Paul, & Mary.
They look so young! It’s a concert I’ve seen before, filmed, I think, in the mid-eighties. That they look young to me is odd, for I don’t think I’ve seen many pictures of them since. I haven’t gotten used to them looking older. But I have gotten used to everyone else looking older, and while once they looked older than my parents, now they don’t look all that much older than me. And of course, Mary is now ageless, being dead. Her onscreen vibrancy is sadly poignant, almost creepy. The music, too, strikes my ears as history. “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I don’t even know if I’d like that song, if I heard it for the first time now—even under the film of nostalgia, the lyrics strike me as somewhat maudlin and vague. But I can’t hear it now for the first time, and I can’t hear it at all without also hearing the sounds, even smelling the scents, of the school where I learned it first as a small child. I was not exactly a happy child—I failed too often and at too much for that—but what I loved then I loved now, both because my taste hasn’t really changed and because it is usually the happy parts I remember.
But this song has a new association, now, too. When I was little and learning this song, I had never left anyone on a jet plane, and I’d rarely left anyone by any means, not in a serious way. I mean, I’d gone on trips away from one or both parents, and missed them, but there is a security in missing one’s parents. They will so obviously reclaim you again. Missing one’s mate, the kind of leaving described in the song, is entirely different. Now, I’ve done exactly the thing the song is about, that except I’ve generally left by Greyhound Bus, not by jet plane. I returned by jet plane once, though, and like they say in the song, I returned with plans to wear a wedding ring.
And oddly, your story intersects mine at this point, though at the time neither of us knew the intersection might prove important. The intersection is only that--two otherwise unrelated sequences happen to cross in time and place. But time and place are important, and through a trick of sensory memory, the two stories have become inextricably linked in my mind, like how certain books will forever recall the taste of whatever it was I happened to be eating when I read them.
So, in brief, I’d gotten an internship searching for and monitoring birds’ nests in the desert near Lake Havasu. I had no particular bird-related ambition, but I was kind of directionless at the time, and it seemed a better way of keeping body and soul together than bagging groceries (not that I’m very good at bagging groceries, anyway). I had no idea what I was doing, and for some reason I still don’t understand, my coworkers mostly disliked me. At least I got to wander around the desert and learn stuff, so I had a good time doing that.
As you said, I like birds, and I liked being more or less forced to learn enough about them as species so I could learn a little about them as individuals. The house finch female who wasn’t quite brave enough to tweet at me by herself, so she flew off to fetch her mate so they could tweet at me together. The phainopepla chick who was so good at holding still that I finally touched the end of its beak, just to see if it would blink (it didn’t). The gnatcatcher male who lost his mate and abandoned his eggs but not his territory, and spent days singing its boundaries, over and over--had he fallen into a simple do-loop of instinct, a default behavior revealed by the loss of his family? Or was he calling for a new mate, or even grieving? So many tiny bird childhoods, so many small family stories. Do they get nostalgic about the fleeting weeks when they were chicks? Do the songs they learned then years later strike home?
But when I was not in the field I was generally at a rental house in Lake Havasu City, pacing up and down in the backyard, talking on the phone. Most of those conversations were with Chris, then only my boyfriend, a man I missed severely both for his own sake and because living for months in a city where the only people who know you don’t like you can be a very lonely thing. One of those conversations with Chris stands out in my memory, along with two conversations I had with other people. All of my conversations that spring are laced in my memory with the backyard I was pacing around in—the volcanic pea gravel sprouting occasional weeds, the ridiculously out of place swimming pool where grackles would perch on the float full of chemicals to drink (ew!), the dead pigeons in the corner by the fence…seriously, dead pigeons. We had a neighbor who liked to feed the birds, but there was a city ordinance against feeding pigeons, so when pigeons came to his feeder he would shoot them, firing into our yard in the process. My boss had a fight with him over that one.
Anyway, one of those conversations was a job interview (I got the job). Another was the first time I spoke to you—you were speaking in a professional, not a personal capacity, of course, and it was to the professional I spoke. I forgot your name no more than halfway through the conversation, and it took some time after meeting you later, in person, for me to work out that you had been the person on the phone. The main reason I remembered the conversation was that I was asking for, and received, some useful information. Nevertheless, I can throw my mind back into that memory, and it is definitely your voice on the phone. If I’d known, I would have told you about the kestrel who came to eat the shot pigeons. I’d have made you a present of the mourning doves balancing on the power cable overhead, their tails as sharp as ink-pens, their bodies rocking back and forth as their small weight made the power cable roll. It is an odd thing to speak to a friend and not know it, to be so thoroughly a stranger in memory. I know you do not remember that conversation at all.
The third stand-out conversation my mind links with that pea-graveled yard, the brave little weeds and the dead pigeons, was with Chris, when he asked me to marry him. I told him to ask me again but not on the phone…I meant yes, of course, and I should have said it then, it would have made just as good a story as his actual proposal months later. I’ve been an idiot at love as often as I’ve been anything else, but at least it seems to have worked out, anyway.
That was the spring I was accepted to graduate school. I deferred for a year, so I could be with Chris, before beginning another two years of being apart so I could go to school and he could work. As you know, we got married over spring break and then I returned to campus. There is something wrong, it seems like, in being apart from one’s mate, something beyond simple missing. When I returned (on a jet plane) to Chris after my brief and largely accidental sojourn with ornithology, it was like the desert’s reunion with rain. When I returned after finishing my coursework at school….
I could have to leave again, or he could, for whatever reason. Things happen. But for now, there is no reason, no date to look towards in the future when we will not be together. When he put on this song—found it, actually, by channel-surfing and landing on PBS—I got up and ran over to his chair and hugged him.
Saturday, March 3, 2012
I’m driving home with Chris from New England—well, I mean, right now he’s driving, obviously, but you know what I mean. I love watching how the character of the land changes, how I can look out the window and see New England, go to sleep, then wake up some unknown time later and look out and know we’re now in New Jersey. What tips me off exactly? Tree species mix? Soil or rock color? Assuming I’m not imagining it, I’m seeing something that’s different, but I don’t know what it is. I know more than I think I know. Anyway, we’ve had Jimmy Buffet blasting intermittently as we drove, which is always fun, especially when we both sing along. We were doing the same thing on the way up, too, and the song “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude” came on. I won’t bore you with a full recital—it strikes me that Jimmy Buffet isn’t actually on your list of favorite musicians, and the title kind of says it all, anyway; Buffet’s done a lot of different things in a lot of different places, and the older I get, the more I can relate. “Nothing remains quite the same,” as he says, and certainly I don’t. Visiting campus this week…I’m actually still a student, but my days of taking classes feels like a million years ago.
Change in latitude—northward, specifically, has always been the direction of adventure for me; New England is where I go when I extend myself, when I go exploring. Southward is the direction of return, contraction to the familiar—a sad, but satisfying thing. I know more about certain parts of New England than I do about my own home state. I go there, always, with a sense of excitement. Yet I cling stubbornly to my Delaware driver’s license, even when I’m not actually living there. Delaware is home, and I can’t imagine ever not returning there. These are the two poles of my life; New England and the Mid-Atlantic. I would have liked to have seen you on this week’s quick northward swing, but of course you were otherwise engaged.
I did see snow—it had been predicted, and we brought our snow-shoes so we could take advantage of the flakes. Here, near Assateague, we hardly get any snow, but normally it gets cold and raw for weeks at a time. This year, we’ve hardly gotten winter at all—I understand the campus hasn’t gotten winter, either, except for this weekend. What about where you are—has there been a winter? It’s disorientating, like skipping Saturday for no apparent reason. It’s odd how fragile winter is getting these days, how cold weather, once the annual antithesis of life, has become a symbol, an illusion, of a certain kind of hope. The whole, warm winter, I’ve been complaining loudly; I think somehow that if I do not welcome climate change, it will go away.
My adviser, whom I also saw this week, says the northeast is actually cooling, according to the latest data; the melting ice at the pole is cooling us down, and will continue to do so until the ice finishes melting, when the region will catch up to the rest of the warm planet. He does this sort of thing a lot, and probably on purpose—pokes holes in other people’s neat and simple ideas of what’s going on. I’m not sure how much of this is his fascination with a certain kind of complexity, how much is him being a smart-ass, and how much is his awareness that it was neat and simple ideas about how the world works that got us into this mess in the first place. This particular contrarian complexity is one I have trouble believing, though I’ve never known him to be wrong. I’ve just seen too much weirdly abnormal warmth. But then, if casual observation were reliable for this sort of thing, we wouldn’t need science. You taught me that.
This was the first time I’ve spoken to him as a friend—I had nothing I needed to say this week as his student, but I wanted to say hi. It was an odd conversation, but then he’s an odd man. I say that as a compliment, as I’m too odd myself to use that adjective in any other way. The particular oddness of this conversation…when I was small, I noticed that many of my teachers had what I called “teacher-personalities,” personas that they adopted while teaching that were subtly different from how they were when not at work—if I bumped into one of them at the grocery store, for example. I was fantastically unpopular with other children, so I made a habit of socializing with teachers, but I knew that many of them thought of our friendship as simply a part of their jobs. They weren’t being fake, but they were enacting a role, the role of teacher, and my friendship with the teacher was not necessarily a friendship with the human being underneath. This awareness of mine was why I did not realize until you told me so that you and I were friends for real—that, and I was oblivious, I suppose. You don’t have a separate teacher-persona, I know now. He does, and this week was the first time I’ve ever seen him without it. Unlike my childhood teacher-friends, who were not my friends except at school, I think that as soon as I leave school, my adviser will become my friend. I am his friend already, as I was yours long before I realized you were mine, but since he does have separate personas, I wonder whether, in gaining a friend, I will see my beloved mentor disappear like snow?
My understanding of friendship has changed so much over the years. I used to think it was something one has, some emotional mist that hovers between two people who like each other. In practice, I thought it was mostly something one received, and I’m sure I was a very poor friend as a result. I can’t chalk up my unpopularity entirely to xenophobia and shallowness on the part of other children and teens; we were all immature together. I think now friendship is a thing that one gives. It has its limits and its boundaries, certainly, but as a species of love, it is an act of hand and mind. To some degree, whether casual or lifelong, it is a deliberate orientation towards the other person’s good.
I learned that quite suddenly by doing it one summer years ago. I don’t know why I did it, as I didn’t know what I was doing until it was at least partially done. Call it a prayer answered, if you like, as I recited the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi almost every morning that summer. I gave my friendship to two boys I worked with, and in giving…it was like I became a garden-hose, a conduit for friendship, watering myself by selflessly watering another. One of those friendships drifted apart, but the other is still going. The boy in question, now a man, though almost ten years my junior, is another I compliment by calling odd. He’d laugh to hear me say so, but he belongs on my short list of smartest people I’ve ever met, because of his emotional intelligence. At eighteen years old he was better at loving than I am now. In some ways his mind is more robust than I can imagine. Even when he was diagnosed with an incurable mental illness, he retained the presence of mind, the commitment to sweetness, to ask how I was doing, to ask if I was ok, before he told me that he was not, that his doctors had told him he would never really be ok again.
I don’t know that I believe those doctors. I’ve seen first-hand how narrow is our society’s conception of mind, how “odd” can become “broken” in the eyes of supposed experts, doctors eager to break a mind so they can set it in the proper direction. I don’t deny that my friend needs help, but I have little faith that he will find the help he really needs. As his friend, I’d move Heaven and Earth if I could, to make things right for him, but as his friend I have hardly any power to do anything for him at all. I have no money, no knowledge, no custody, and no influence. Only love.
I was thinking about him an hour or so ago as we drove, as yet another song came on the truck’s CD player, not Jimmy Buffet this time, a song that reminds me of my friend, and always has. The hard, light-hearted beat matched the rhythm of the sun through the snow-covered trees of Route 10 exactly, and the frank simplicity of the lyrics over the complexity of instrumental sound, the repeating line “it’s good to be young and daring,” expressed perfectly the sweet boyishness my friend had when he was eighteen. Schizophrenia is the ultimate hole in anybody’s neat and simple ideas of what’s what. Its reality defeats both despair and hope.
So, unable to think, I watched the snow on the trees, the whiteness painted here with blue shadow and there with lemon sun, clinging to the sides and the tops of the dark trunks and branches, pines and oaks and hemlocks marching up hills and down drainages for mile after mile, the occasional fence holding back inches of accumulated leaves and snow on the uphill side and keeping pace with the car for a while and vanishing, and there, that drainage there, might be the locus of childhoods, animal tracks, warfare, geology, and gone again in a moment as the car speeds by, leaving its fumes behind it in the vast, silent forest I know how to destroy but not how to fix.
I think, sometimes, that to love is to be willing to do anything while remaining aware that there is nothing one can do, no service of the hands and heart that can be simply guaranteed.
Everything I love seems vast and intricate and fragile.