This paragraph came at the end of a much longer piece about illness and caregiving:
The copper beech branches outside claw at the sky, barren but for a few tattered leaves. But even a tattered leaf speaks to season — one jiggling a little message in the bitter breeze this morning. All I have to do to find redemption — serious, nervous-system, Holy Spirit kind of redemption — is lift my head and look out the window. Blue jays my best teachers. Squirrels and puddles and scarlet holly berries, too.
In the spirit of learning through imitation, here’s something written after reading three pages from Jamaica Kincaid’s “At the Bottom of the River.” As promised, it’s pretty stream of consciousness.
There’s the book about indigo, the one about slavery, one called, “Unexplained Presence.” If you could explain anything you would. You know you can’t, but the trouble is you keep trying. A fan in a summer window whirrs, more to block out a roofing crew than to cool the hallway.
All hallways connect one thing to another.
Remember how little Markie crawled up the stairs and his brother trailed behind, exclaiming, “You’re a good climber-upper!” Stairs connect up to down, the present to the past.
With all the molecules swapped out since our babies were learning to walk, we might as well be different people. That’s supposed to make us feel better — scientific evidence that we are not, after all, stuck. But what of all the unread books? The tome about journalism highlighting Ida B. Wells or the new massive biography of Frederick Douglass? You don’t even take the time to reread his Fourth of July speech.
You go, instead, to the rocky shore looking for talismans, hoping to be refreshed because the evidence in hand suggests that you are indeed stuck.
The man’s forearms still lovely, still eager for son. You write ‘progeny son’ instead of ‘solar sun’ and give the game away. Our issue, 1,000’s of miles away, having left, and left again. Airports foreclosed for now. Even a run to the PO to mail care packages means defying the odds. Contagion everywhere, anywhere.
If you look at the lozenge of of light on the floor, what do you actually see? The puddles of gold like stepping stones from here to sleep.
At the shore, you gather palm-sized rocks, silently condemning the neighbor who fills his truck and fills it again to line his long driveway with Pebble Beach artifacts. Your offense is so small by comparison, three rocks in the pocket, but the impulse is the same.
A mist came in. The surf crashed in brownish rolls. We could smell the kelp. We could smell the brine. All the smells, stepping stones to the past.
Remember when Thacher Island light houses bellowed out their caution on days like this? If they were to do so now, I might weep. And why don’t they now?
The sandals are left in the car. The espadrilles get sandy and, because of recent downpours, muddy, too. We used to come here as children, as families, as the last of the boomers, ready to accept all as our due and then reject the same with ideology, entitled rage, and dirty espadrilles.
We were too young to protest the war. As Saigon fell, I was taking my boyfriend by the hand, lying him down, unbuckling him. We were too young to go to Woodstock. We watched the reels wistfully, knowing all the songs. We missed the mud. The dirty hair. Jimi Hendrix before he died.
We protested Three Mile Island instead. We made ‘Take Back the Night’ banners instead. How many forthright and righteous women does it take to bring down a single, lying predator — twenty, thirty? And maybe not even then.
I put the thieved, striped rocks in the garden where they can talk to others of their kind. ‘I was stolen from the beach. How ’bout you?’ ‘I long for the sound of the surf, for the sound of the fog horn, for the sound of children scrambling with their plastic pails and sunburned shoulders.’
Sunburns no more! Lighthouses silent!
When the sun illuminates a long string of cobweb draped from ceiling molding to light fixture, it’s hard not to gasp. How long, exactly, has it hung there?
How long had the creepy pair lured girls to the massage table? Why do we call her a ‘madam’ or ‘socialite’ and why do we call him anything but ‘convicted sex offender’? She turned up in New Hampshire, not Zurich, not the Upper East Side. She thought her money would shield her.
Will she live long enough to tell her dirty secrets?
The muddy espadrilles resist the bleach, refusing to be spiffed up. Now the toss away shoes cost unreasonable sums — formerly priced like upgraded flip flops, now like a mid-level shoe.
No foghorn blare. The mist a fine spray. We were refreshed. The dog always between us. Pebbles rattling in the backwash of surf like we remember. All the rock tokens. The light puddled on the floor. Hallways and staircases leading somewhere. Recalling the toddler proud of his new velcro sneakers. “Here, Markie, chew on these!” Those were the days when the little one put everything in his mouth, chewed banisters and socks. Memory like a plaintive foghorn, marking out where the invisible island lies.
Oooh boy, am I in for a treat with the novel, “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers! Abandoned another piece of fiction in order to begin. Since that disqualifies me from airing any opinion about said abandoned book: My Lips are Sealed (but maybe I don’t like farce all that much?)
“The Overstory” is already blowing the top of my head off, in much the way that “Lincoln in the Bardo” did. Grace, Mo, Alden, Maureen, and Deb have all led me to it.
One of the prompts at the AWA writing retreat in August came from the opening page. I think you’ll swoon to read the lines, too:
… The tree is saying things, in words before words. It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.
When I find what I wrote, I’ll post it, even though as I recall it was a bit opaque. In the meantime, scroll down for a response to another prompt that mentions the 250+ year old copper beech that dwells next door.
I’ve probably photographed this tree more than any other feature of our built or natural landscape. It towers over the houses with a reach nothing short of spectacular. The trunk, muscular and sturdy, mediates between sky and earth, while beneath the soil? A downward fractalling mirror of the canopy, unseen and necessary.
A story I’m submitting to literary magazines describes it. My son featured it in a third grade project.
My neighbors steward the being with utmost care: cables strung for support, twice annual feedings.
Can you imagine all that this beech has witnessed? The household secrets, the stirring of war and war again, the native people who may have honored it and perhaps also drank at the spring which once (supposedly) offered cool respite nearby. People with pox, barn fires (our house and its charred beams), orphans and the enslaved, tavern owners and farmers (the Bartletts at the corner).
The Jacksons who built the house in the 1700’s witnessed the early, young days of the tree’s life. Maybe it was the tree that inspired one owner to bequeath the house to an illegitimate daughter. Such things were not done!
Ghosts have been noted. A smithy and a soldier hanging in a closet. Not here but next door.
This little untitled poem by me mentions the tree.
She flipped the french toast, vanilla fumed, and twisted to a morning made of thread and diary, made of weeds along the road — dandelion and chickweed — and a sun that glared hot mystery through the copper beech.
This time of year leafery, cotillion, cockswaddle, and steak. We could be made of spores and engineered lumber, but find ache and patchwork inside instead.
How his back moves down the road. She, off with the dog down another. Was there no plan to map the distances, to cloud handshakes and rollovers with sleep or with taking out the trash?
And how about Yellow? Primroses flat, then yarrow, regal. Soon the pansies made of sugar and sunlight bought by the flat will land while the dog pulls away, scents of cow dung and denim rot irresistible.
She left the dowels at the store. The quilt unhung for another week. Made of forgetfulness, inclined toward suspense, turning away not gathering up, and a scold or two.
If only the oceans lingered near the driveway, instead of maple tree detritus and scum bubbles of tar.
Meanwhile, an unintended consequence of a rheumatologist’s advice last week to “be active like you were ten years ago,” led to bravado in the garden and a back with more pain than I’ve ever experienced. Chiropractor at three. PT beginning within the week. K even stayed home today because yesterday I could barely get up the stairs or into bed. I’m much better now.
In other news: it looks like I have enough people for my first writing class. I’m so excited!
What do you think of my name: “Page by Page?” It’s a little bit like Annie Lamont’s “Bird by Bird,” but not critically enough to foreclose my usage.