The Streaming Rain

 

 

The path up the hill in the forest

Has been walked by so many feet

Both human and much wilder

 For so many thousands of years.

I see the prints of their passing. 

The mud vibrates with all that life.

 

Today water courses down.

The rains of days and days streaming towards ground

In such sheets of clear drops

Onto the tops of trees 

Their leaves now open and green.

 

Dripping down through boughs and branches 

To leaf-mold and dirt below

 Seeking the places where the ground is lower

To run in streams

New and old.

All these droplets of water 

Desiring, as they fall

Yearning to collect themselves into one

Into stream, into river, into ocean

 

They must be together again.



And some human hand has made a small dam

Of rocks right here

In the gathering stream

And another just there to guide it

With gentle redirection, so sure

To plummet down the side of the gulley

Into a bigger  swift-rushing torrent,

Singing loudly there

Where it will not seem to make a river of the path 

Where humans pass.

 

But plunge on down streambeds,

Down hillslopes, to ditches,

To gutters, to river

To swell its waters

And bring the leaf dust and the soil that they found

 

 Thus make the waves of that water so brown, with such frothing

To stroke the banks of earth,  grass and trees

And caress the soil to come join them

 

Racing away in some wild heathen dance

To once again all be one

In that cold caldron of salt and sea creatures

That unending, immense

Soup of life.



The Negative

 

I pause beneath the dripping leaves

Chanting lines of children’s rhymes

 Happy in my walking time.

Then arching on  the crowded hill

 Lining through the pines,

 A ragged wave of silvery ash 

 Standing naked still.

The photographic negatives

 Preserved with those green  positives

 For that Grand Developer

To continue some great chemistry 

Of sun and soil and wind and time

That flows along with its own rhyme.

 

 

 

 

 

This Green and Luminous Fire

Spring rain can set the woods aflame

With that most gentle and successful fire 

That lights with life itself the bark that slept 

In meditation,  waiting

 

Green fire as intense and yet diffuse as love

That quickens and yet calms 

More constant than the moon and stars

In transformation, waking.

 

I’ve  walked the forests in the sun

And dreamt the dreams of these warm trees

Their leaves so firm and quaking

I’ve  kicked the brown mold on the ground

To send its scent, ascending.

 

But it’s in the warmish rain of spring

With the whole world  still and waiting

This softest fire sets alight

A deep internal reckoning. 

 

This green must burn my heart to ash

No separation lasting

It’s soft blaze sears away all lies

Its beauty, unrelenting

 

 

An Easter Fairytale

 

 

The clear, bright sunshine and bright blue of the sky here at the beginning of this Easter Sunday in Southern France is the same as the sparkle of this same day almost exactly one half of my lifetime ago in the gardens of a big old brick home in upstate New York. As I watch two small french children looking for hidden eggs in a backyard I can see from my study window, I’m transported to that other time. It’s powerfully bittersweet, this moment, flooded with the absence of my own children and grandchildren seven thousand miles away, confined in their tiny apartments.

That day so long ago, I had flown two days before with my family of two small children and their father all the way from one coast to the other. It was a momentous trip. It was the grand stage setting for the first time my whole biological family would be together.

We were all coming together at the home where my three brothers and one sister had grown up in the rural area of Rockland County.  It was Marvin, my biological father, who had conceived of the gathering, and my biological mother, Toni (whose name I bear like her thumbprint), who had created all the beauty and the magic of the staging. The play unfolded, a work of genius.

We were all converging on the old brick three-story farmhouse they had bought when, in his first years as a doctor, Marvin had decided to move from the city to set up a medical practice. The house had been in tough shape, the surrounding land untended. They managed to fix up the house to make it livable as the family grew. Over the years, Toni had labored to create a landscape of incredible flower and vegetable gardens all around on a property stretching from the house down to a woods and a lake. She had planned and dug and planted and weeded while raising four children, working on a doctorate in history and teaching. Marvin had mowed the lawn on his riding mower on weekends.

These, my biological parents, had already taken turns coming to meet us in our home in Washington state. Marvin had flown out a week after I had called him and we had spoken for the first time. He saw himself as the emissary for my mother, for whom he knew the impact would be earthshaking. She came a week after.

My middle brother had called the day I first spoke to Marvin. My other two brothers and I had spoken over the next few days. My sister, the youngest, was the last. It was to be the most powerful bond.

This was the first time we would all meet together. My two oldest brothers would come from the city, the youngest from Maryland with his wife and two small daughters, miraculously almost the same ages as my own daughter and son. My adoptive mother, Pearl, would come the following day to discover what her place was in all this, she who had raised me and given me the emotional freedom to find them. Marvin was the bridge of warmth we could all cross, the patriarch and healer whose bear hug melted all pain.

I can look back on that day now still as a time of magic and wonder, even from this position on the mountain of life’s difficulties. The big house was sold years ago so Marvin and Toni could move to Maryland to be near their grandchildren and live a simpler life. Marvin has been dead for several years, dying on the anniversary of my adoptive mother’s birth in some mysterious synchronicity. His perfection in those first years we knew each other still lives with me even after the harsher realities of the afterglow. My adoptive mother died years before him. The family was blown apart after the death of their patriarch. My sister, my mother and I have floated this way and that, together though apart, held to each other by the stickiness of women’s love and tolerance.

The day before, Marvin had picked us up at the airport, driving in his off-hand unhurried way, from time to time turning his big wooley head fully around to talk to me as we navigated the congestion from La Guardia, making me draw in my breath and grab my son’s car seat. We turned safely onto their country road after leaving the parkway, seeing landmarks for the first time that I would come to know so well over the years.

We turned in through a gate in a row of old trees and crunched onto a gravel driveway. There on the steps stood Toni, a woman tall and beautiful still. Quickly out of the door behind her came two men who must be my brothers and then a woman, my sister. Opening the car door even before we came to a stop, I stepped out awkwardly after the long trip, almost tripping backwards into the arms of a sister and brother. My children, a son not yet two and a daughter of five, climbed out of the car and up the steps into Toni’s arms, now familiar from her visit as yet another grandmother, their third.

We were ushered through the door  into the big farmhouse kitchen with its enormous counter and sloping old floor. It was there that we stood, talking excitedly, greeting, hugging and looking at each other at arm’s length, filling the space with uncontainable energy. There were the big brown eyes, there the long legs, there the unmistakable nose, the chin, the eyebrows. And then, there was the sense of humor, the laughter at each other’s rye comments and a recognition of how that humor typically goes unappreciated.

And then the food, the endless fabulous food! The wine, the noisy conversation and more laughter around the big table in the dining room with tulips from the garden, the big Irish Terrier begging for food around our legs to my son’s delight. Marvin’s tremendous joy in a family all together. His puns. The intense delight we all felt, the cleverness in having found each other. And fitting together like the pieces of a scattered puzzle. And then, tired, tipsy, full of volcanic emotions, being shown up the narrow stairs to the third floor, past the bedrooms where my brothers had holed up as teenagers, into the big attic room lined with shelves crammed with books, with a cozy bed under the eaves and windows overlooking the gardens. My little family all piled into the big bed, and windows cracked open to smell the sweet night air, we all fell into a peaceful, satisfied sleep.

The next day, Saturday, we sleepily met each other at different times in the morning, coffee and bagels and cream cheese in hand, beginning the interchange that would go on for days, learning about each other as people do when falling in love. My sister and I spent a precious hour lying on the grass, talking about all the things we already seemed to recognize in each other and discovering more about the trials we’d endured. My youngest brother arrived with his wife and two blond girls and the children played happily in the freedom of the huge walled gardens. Looking into my youngest brother’s face again and again with furtive curiosity, I was mystified. It felt like such a familiar face, like the face of someone I’d lived with for years. With a start, I realized it was like looking at my own face, into my own eyes, in the bathroom mirror.

Lunch was outside where we all sat on old wrought iron chairs and ate grilled chicken, studiously charred by our father, with our fingers. My sister, mother, sister-in-law and I gayly dyed hard-boiled eggs all afternoon in the kitchen and Marvin drove to the airport to pick up my adoptive mother, Pearl, who he was meeting for the first time.

When she arrived, she too was astonished and absorbed for hours, finding all the resemblances, asking her endless questions about their lives, laughing heartily at silly jokes.  Marvin and Toni toasted her several times in gratitude for all she had done in raising me and for her generosity of spirit in what must be a web of complicated emotions. She had adopted me at the age of forty. Toni had been twenty-one at the time. She fit into the family as if she were a grandmother, with a comfortable click. They all loved her with her Brooklyn heritage, her love of literature and the theater and her good humor. We were all in love. The memories shine with it.

Easter day dawned. The sun was with us. The sky was without a cloud as I peered out through the curtains next to where I slept. The stagecraft was still holding. Slithering my way over the children, leaving them sleeping, I went barefoot down the stairs to the kitchen to meet the others for the egg hiding. The men didn’t seem to be up, but together the women of the family each took a basket and went out into the damp grass to hide eggs in the most perfect egg hunt setting one could imagine.

Making sure to leave many where the two youngest could find them, we made quick work of it, hiding them among the beds of tulips and daffodils, in the bushes and in the long grass, giving the older ones some challenges in the woodsier places. By the time we got back to the house, the kids were up and being fed in their pajamas.

But we were going to do this right, as it should be done. When they had eaten enough, they were led upstairs to be dressed by their mothers in their best dresses (and my son in a new shirt and fancy shorts) for the Easter Egg Hunt. There were photos in the morning sun. Photos of the children posing with their hair combed and outfits perfect. A photo of all the siblings in a line. A photo of the youngest girl, so blond, so mischievous, eating a whole painted egg from her basket, crunching it shell and all. Photos of the various configurations of parents with their children, my ex-husband looking a bit quizzical or perhaps a bit stiff or bored, awkward as all this was for him, whose culture was so different.

The best of these photos hang on Toni’s wall in her room in the Assisted Living where she moved just days before everything changed. My sister hung them there right before that novel virus burst on the scene and made us all bow down. My last (and first) mother’s been confined in that room now for the last three weeks. She’s taking it all well, reading avidly as always. It’s good she can’t watch the news on a TV that won’t function. Her mind is sharp, her admirable intellect intact despite the things of the moment she easily forgets. We are all on pause.  There was some error in the programming, some glitch we now must all endure.  She waits–for what, she doesn’t know. 

So much has happened since that bright day. The fairytale does, indeed, shift with the often grim realities of families and time. The story has become more of a novel by Tolstoy or Chekhov than a Hans Christian Anderson confection. Strangely, all of this has blended into some kind of experience of family, incredibly rich, intensely joyful and intensely tragic.

But those days of clear sunshine persist as one of life’s true beacons as I sit here in a room so far away in time and space and texture, wondering, quiet.



 

 

 

 

The Man With Horses

 

Jean is a man in our village. Tall, with wide shoulders, a broad chest and a belly that knows a balance of both good food and a life of walking and tending to his horses, he lives with his wife in the house right next to the one remaining sawmill. He strides with long legs. He has a bushy white beard and long white hair that forms an aurora around his clear and open face, ageing in skin only since his eyes are bright and alive.

He is an anomaly in this village of smaller, quieter people. It is said he is not well-liked by the other old-timers. Who knows. He is part of the as-yet impenetrable French community around me that I will never really be a part of, though many may open themselves to me along our way. We met Jean in the fall when a portal into his life opened in front of us. But I will tell you that story later. First I will tell you about this morning.

Walter has been heavily pruning the old apple and plum trees in the small orchard on the strip of land next to us that we bought last summer. This strip is, in turn, next to the land owned by Jean. All these pieces of land run down to the little river that flows through the village. There are a few old apple trees on his strip and grazing land for his horses.

Walter and our friend David had just been spending several days with David’s chainsaw and Walter’s expertise as an orchard pruner, opening up the ancient trees, giving them another life. They looked as odd and wounded as the pollarded Plane trees lining the village streets did last spring when the town crews went to work on them. It is a radical method employed for hundreds of years to revive old trees and give them more years to leaf and to florish. Walter’s long experience pruning had shown him the results of his work. He was looking forward to the flush of apples in two years time.

Everyone from the village passes by our place to get to the outside world. The trees of the orchard are a well-known sight. As with much in this area, tucked into the foothills, such a place seen so frequently, so familiar to the villagers, carries the emotions of more than just those who own it on paper. The apples of two of the trees are famous to the locals in the village for their flavor. They were the trees planted by the grandfather of a woman just the other side of the bridge whose family has lived here for generations.

The old inhabitants have their own way of pruning. Neglect of the trees is not necessarily considered a bad thing. They provide apples anyway till they begin to die, more than what is considered enough. Pruning, when still done, is an act of allowing the branches of the trees to lean down and put the fruit in your hand rather than a way to open the tree to the light.

As I sat at my desk on this early Saturday morning, writing and reading, I watched as Jean, returning from an early morning hike, perhaps a visit to his horses in a field at some distance, staff in hand and small pack on his back, stopped for many long moments to look at the apple trees, so starkly different from a week ago. I was ideally positioned to watch his face, the dim light of the room and the partially opened shutters shielding him from the magnetic pull of a focused pair of eyes. I indulged my curiosity.

He looked into the trees as they parade down the soft slope, studying the whole scene. He too was curious. Even as I sat, trying to plumb his thoughts, no judgement seemed to appear. There was nothing in the line of his mouth, the direction of his eyes, the plane of his forehead that expressed either approval or accusation. He stepped forward as if to see some detail more closely, noting the last of the pile of dirt that the village workers had dumped on our land for Walter’s use in the garden. He stepped back into the road, looked ahead and then back for one more long look at the trees before walking on more slowly down the road towards his house in the center of the village.

In those moments, unseen, I had picked up the subtle transmissions from inside another organism. His thoughts, though well protected, the same in any language, transmitted a color, a flavor, a texture from the subtle energy of his mind, his emotion. Some receptors in me had awakened to listen, to see.

Still in my nightgown, I suppressed an urge to run down the stairs and out the front door to talk with him, to ask him what he thought of what he had seen, why he had stopped. I wondered if he had been thinking about how he, too, could give his trees another life. Or perhaps he looked at this cut and that, analyzing what he would have done differently. Or perhaps he was recalling a conversation with the last owner of the house years ago about the pruning of the trees. He would have been speaking, then, with a man respected and loved in the village, a man who would have been his senior by many years. Perhaps he was comparing that advice with what he saw of the work of this American, surely an upstart and a radical.  The energy that had passed from one human to another was not really about the content of the thoughts, but some other more subtle quality.  Whatever passed through the obvious concentration of his mind, it occurred to me it was likely colored by the empathy of a bond made months ago.

It was at the height of summer, just as a second heatwave was due to hit and just before a long holiday weekend. Four horses appeared in the field next to our land.

They were the beautiful horses I’d admired in another field on the opposite side of the river during our first summer in the village. Three were large-chested and heavy, as you would imagine a destrier to have been, carrying a knight in full armour into battle. These were a chestnut brown, each with a white blaze down its long nose,  with blond manes, blond tales, and blond feathering above their heavy hoofs. The fourth was smaller and black, more agile-looking and lively.

The next afternoon we were working in the garden when we noticed that one of the biggest chestnuts horses had been lying on the ground for a long while. Walter mentioned it as we sat outside having a break from garden work. It was unusual for a horse, he said, to spend so much time on the ground. As we watched, it seemed she was having trouble lifting her head from the grass.

“It’s an old mare. She’s really ill,” he said.

I hope the owner is doing something about it. It wouldn’t be good for her to just die there.”

Soon, the man with long white hair and a white beard we had seen driving past from deeper in the village arrived in his familiar turquoise van. Clearly the owner of the horses, he opened the gate and petted each one in turn before quietly approaching the big chestnut on the ground. He knelt beside her, clearly stiff himself, and spoke to her softly. She tried again to lift herself on her knees, but, failing, let her head drop again into the grass.

After a few moments, the man stood and turned to walk back to the van. Thinking he might be leaving, I went to call to him over the fence. “Elle est malade?” I enquired. “Oui,” he said “elle a tourne un pate (she twisted a foot)”

I was so sorry to hear that. “Desolee!” I said, in empathy with them both. I wondered aloud if there were anything we could do to help.

“Non. Merci.” he said, smiling slightly. He thought, he said, that he would try to help her up as the vet had suggested. It would take pressure off her big chest.

“If they lie too long when they’re in pain, they may never be able to rise. “

I went back to join Walter with the weeding, noting that Walter’s attention, as he hoed, was both on the weeds and on what was unfolding in the next field.

Soon the man, carrying what looked to be a length of heavy rope, was heading back to the downed mare. Kneeling for long moments beside her, he seemed to be wrapping one end around her front leg, close to the belly. He stood, grabbing the rope, and walked back several paces before he leaned back and pulled with all his strength, moving her top leg over toward the ground so her body would follow.

She moved a bit as her leg came down towards the ground, dramatic in her heaving enormity. Almost, almost, but not quite.

Walter, a man of action, propped his hoe against a post where he was working and quickly began striding over to the road where he could go around the electric fencing. “Come over to the fence!” he called to me as he walked away.

Rounding the fence and going down through the trees, he approached the spot where Jean stood near the mare, considering his next move. I watched as Walter said the obligatory “Bonjour” and shook hands. He then motioned that he would help turn the horse. The first effort had come close. It just needed a bit more weight.

Understanding immediately, Jean smiled as he took up the rope again. They worked together with a mixture of English and French, knowing the necessary motions without speech.

Walter took hold of the rope behind Jean. I watched as, with two, the task became possible. They pulled together and over came the leg, followed inevitably by the enormous weight of her huge body. Walter stood back, deferentially, watching to make sure she had settled.

Jean helped her arrange her legs more comfortably. Then, kneeling by her head, he stroked her neck and spoke to her quietly. After a long moment, he pushed himself up and, looking like a biblical giant, walked towards Walter, aextending his big hand. Walter, a big man himself, took it in his. They shook hands firmly, both, as I could see, with large black patches of sweat spreading on their shirts.

I walked to the end of the fence to meet them and translated Jean’s thank you’s to Walter, who, as he does, nodded them off and, looking briefly at Jean, said

“Good! Of course. I’m glad we could do it! It just took two,”

and motioned that he was going back to work in the garden. They shook hands again in good-bye. I lingered to talk to Jean for a moment.

The vet would be coming in a little while, he said, and he would wait to meet her. They would decide together what was possible. With emotion evident in every part of his face and in the stoop of his shoulders, impossible to hide even in front of a stranger, wanting to talk, he explained that the other two large brown horses were the huge mare’s children, all of them Comtois, an old French breed of draft horse.

He had bought her as a yearling, he said, some thirty two years ago. They were family. He had never ridden or worked them, just cared for them. The fourth horse was a Merens, a breed of the Ariege, hearty and small. He had come later, rescued from a friend. He spent time with them every day.

I went back to the garden. Walter, having grown up around horses and cows, was clear the old horse would never stand again. It was not good to let her suffer, he said. He wondered if Jean had yet accepted that fact and planned for it. In the heat, the body would not do well. I nodded. The heat was extreme and it was predicted to get even hotter over the weekend to come.

Later in the day, the vet came. We watched briefly as they talked, gathering our tools at the end of the day. The next morning, the horse was still there, a mound under the tree now completely covered with a blue tarp. And Jean was there, clothes looking rumpled, an arm around the neck of one of her children. She had died in the night, whether helped by the vet or on her own.

After breakfast, I went out to the fence and waved hello. Jean walked over and said bonjour.

“ We gave her an injection last night,” he said.

“She was suffering too much.”

Tears came to his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “She was so much a part of your life. “

For a short moment, he didn’t turn away. Somehow, with some sense of what was at hand, he was allowing this stranger whose partner had known, without asking, what to do to help, allowing this woman from another place, to see the pain, the depth of it in his eyes.

When he turned, it was to look at the mound of her and say,

“I’ve wetted her down to keep her cooler. I hope the men will get here before the weekend with the truck.”

The practicalities.

Small moments. The distance from one human to another is as great as the infinite distances of the universe.

Yet when we are truly distant from each other in our own space, our own time, this sense transforms. Every day of our habitual lives, we pass alongside each other, touching, contaminating, exchanging hosts of molecules here and there in our attempts to see ourselves in another, to question the isolation of the flesh.

Yet, in flashes, there it is. The truth of our condition. There is no inside and no outside. We are all in that same infinity–exploring.

Remember this.

 

The Man with Two Canes

I am in Lavelanet, the town down the road where the white tops of the Pyrenees sparkle in the near distance. I sit in the kinesiology clinic, lifting my weighted leg over and over, strengthening the places that had been weakened by the surgery for my broken femur, my mind opening out into the void as I listen to the music of the French conversations floating around me. 

M. Paradis banters and jokes with all his clients as he juggles the needs of the six to ten people present in his modern, new clinic at any given time, striding back and forth, manipulating the arm of one old man wincing in a chair, gently calling out directions to a young woman, telling a long, funny story to a man on the stationary bike, heating up the warming compound he applies to aching joints, calling out, “Ca va, Madame Lyons?” “Oui, ca va!” I follow his directions. Sometimes he peppers his French with excellent English, corrects my French unabashedly and jabs me mildly about the leadership of the US.

 

In such a setting, I understand about half of the conversations drifting into my ears over the cubicle walls or from the open gym. The vocabulary becomes local, flavored with Occitane, fast- paced, colloquial. I begin to feel like a child who hasn’t studied enough at school, ashamed, small. When M. Paradis speaks with the old men and women who come in taxis from the Residence down the road, with  their wheelchairs or their canes, the conversations become quickly obscure as he flows into the flattened accent he grew up with, the particular way of kidding and the obscure usage of the Ariege. 

 

As I stretch out on a therapy bench in a cubicle, lifting my weighted leg over and over, counting to twenty each time I lift,  waiting for M. Paradis to say, “Madame Lyons, vous pouvez terminer quand vous voulez!” a bit of conversation becomes distinct. 

 

The old man with his canes is making his way from the recumbent stationary bike in the big room, following M. Paradis’ direction to move to “un box”.  M. Paradis is saying, “No not that cubicle. Here, over here, there’s one with an ocean view.” The old man, slowly making his way responds, “Will I be able to hear the waves washing in and out? Will I smell the salt air? Will I be able to go out for a swim in the morning?”

 

In that moment, I experience the opening of all minds into one. The way in which there is no barrier to the flow of imagination. We imagine each other.  We create the languages that express those thoughts drifting through like clouds. We create each other. Time and culture have no meaning. There is only the expanse of mind that encompasses everything.

dig

Teddy

 

Teddy, the way I remember it,  just appeared one day. But maybe that’s not true. There may have been discussions and plans.  When I came to visit for the first time he was established there on the land that nestled so beautifully between the breasts of the Vermont hills, so fragrantly colored in autumn, so dusted with white on bare branches in winter, green and soft and flowing in the heat of summer. 

 

He was not in the old sugar shack they had converted into a home, but off at a distance. He had built a tiny log cabin, chinked with moss, roofed with scrounged shingles, where he lived on his own. It was a beautiful little place, everything neatly done with a kind of meticulous care. At first it was very simple, I was told, a single layer of logs,a bed on a shelf on one side, a small old wood stove in another, a small pile of books and some blankets and cushions. Perhaps a stool for the rare visitor. He came for super with the group most days, cooking in his turn, his two long braids dangling over his shoulders, tied together in back to tend to the beans or the soup or to cut into the huge wheel of Vermont cheddar.

 

It’s hard to remember his face. It seems it was tanned, even in winter. His eyes were dark brown and settled rarely on human faces, preferring the focus of trees, earth and, while cooking, beans and fire and pans. When my eyes did settle on his in the moments together, sitting for a break after cutting trees for our winter wood , they were steady, intent, clear, dark, yet shining gently from the interior. But that was later, when we had a few more precious conversations as we worked together in the woods, I learning he had been, unbelievably, an Eagle Scout and he learning, impressed, that my father had been an editor of Boys’ Life Magazine and had written responses to the “Letters to Pedro”, the mascot donkey of the Boy Scouts.  Incongruities. 

 

It’s the way he moved that I remember most. His slim body glided across the paths, his feet silent on the leaves and earth. He was neither tall nor short, but straight, erect still when climbing up the rocks on a trail, the presence of his form always held quietly. He might have been an old man, but he was not. There was patience about his movements. 

 

He spent much of his time in and around his cabin, tending to the world from his position in its center. The rest of his days must have been spent out in the forest, exploring, looking, finding, mostly solitary. 

 

One day when I was sent to find him to see whether he wanted to join a trip to town, he was gathering moss from the circle around his cabin and pushing it into tiny holes in the insulation of the cracks between the logs of its walls with a small stick. He was squatting on the ground  as I approached, saying,

 

“Hi, Teddy.” 

 

He gracefully stood, pushing himself up without effort, and turned to come towards me. Stopping a few feet from me, in seeming respect, he said,

 

 “Hello.” 

 

 “I’ve come to see if you want to go on a shopping trip to town.”  I said. 

 

“No,” he replied. “I don’t need anything.” He paused for a long moment. 

 

“Would you like to see my cabin?” 

 

“Oh, very much!” I said, feeling greatly honored  as a newcomer by this offer. He gestured with a sweep of his arm towards the wooden door.

 

As I remember, it was late autumn, the brilliance of the leaves mostly gone, some orange and bronzey-brown clinging to the trees lower on the hills where the sun came late in the day. A trail of smoke came through the metal pipe on the cabin’s roof. I ducked a bit to go through the door and entered into an enchanted room that seemed somehow larger than the tiny cabin could contain. 

 

The small wood stove to the left of the door filled the space with heat. A bed on a platform to the right was covered with two woolen blankets, one a dark red. To the left on the other side of the stove was an alcove with a small window looking out towards the hill behind. A round of a very large log was set under the window with a green plastic basin on top. A black cast iron pot and pan hung to one side and a plate, a bowl and a handmade ceramic mug sat on a shelf on the left-hand wall of the room. He showed me how the hook for the round cover on top of the woodstove hung on a convenient hook. He took it down, and inserting it into the small square opening in the cover, lifted the round cast iron piece and set it to the back on the stove top, revealing the glowing logs underneath. He reached behind us for the cast iron pot and put it over the hole. 

 

“This is how I cook.”

 

“Have a seat.” he said, motioning to the stool. “I’ll make some tea.” 

 

He took a plastic water container from the side of the makeshift log sink and poured a little into the pot.

 

“That will heat soon.”

 

He stepped past me and reached to a wooden shelf carved from a split of a log and took down an old book. Opening it, he showed me a page with pictures of several kinds of trees. 

 

“I found this in a shop in town this summer. I’m studying the types of trees.” 

 

He handed it towards me, and I took it from him. “Look through it. The pictures are beautiful.” 

 

He busied himself getting tea leaves from a small metal tobacco tin, a strainer and the mug. I looked through the book, exclaiming to him over one tree or another and asking a question or two about whether or where a tree was found in these woods around us. The water soon boiled and he poured it through the tea strainer into the mug, setting it on the stove. He carefully took down a small basket which hung on a hook by the opening side of the door, away from the heat of the stove, and brought it to me.

 

“Owl and hawk feathers,” he said. “I find them from time to time up on the hill. Feel them.” 

 

As I gently reached out my hand, he tipped the basket toward me and my fingers touched what felt like the energy of the air, smooth and soft and without weight.

 

When the tea was brewed, he handed it to me. “None for you?” I said.

 

“No. It’s for you.” 

 

“Thank you,” I said, sincerely grateful and feeling a bit guilty and suddenly shy. 

 

I took a sip. It was lovely, a bit minty but smoothed by some green, slightly fruity tasting leaf.

 

“It’s so good. What is it?” I asked.

 

“Wild mint and verbena I planted in the garden.”

 

He showed me other small treasures as I sipped my tea. A piece of wood that seemed to have the head of a duck, A large piece of quartz with a rose streak. An owl pellet. A fat, long, oblong seed pod. A big piece of birch bark, so smooth and white with its black markings.  “I’m still thinking what to paint on that,” he said. He stood over me and we looked at it together, admiring its markings.

 

He showed me how on the inside the planks were fitted together. “I have the logs on the outside and left over ends of planks from the yard in town on the inside. Between the two are pine needles for insulation. There are no air leaks. I have to open the door every once in awhile, even in the cold, just to let in some air.”

 

“And, oh,” he said, as if an afterthought, “I almost forgot this. I just finished it.” 

 

Animated in a way I hadn’t seen before, his eyes smiling, he showed me that in the corner behind the wood stove, a  kind of small metal wash tub hung on a nail. Above it, hanging from the ceiling, was a large tin can with holes punched in the bottom. Around it on the wooden planked ceiling was painted a blue sky with a fluffy white cloud in the middle just above the suspended can. He demonstrated how the cloud hid a hole, plugged with a piece of wood, painted to match the cloud and large enough for the end of a small hose. He went to the door, opened it and motioned me to come outside. 

 

He pointed  to the roof near the stove pipe.

 

“See. I have a five gallon container of water that I can put up on top. Then I run a hose with a valve down through the hole and into the can. When I’m ready, I put down the basin, get undressed, stand in it, and open the valve. A shower. The water’s cold, but I’m warm.”

  

Going back inside, that warmth embraced us.

 

“It seems like a perfect little home,” I said, as I picked up the mug to finish the last of my tea.

 

At the compliment, he looked away slightly, out the small window at the back.

 

“Yes. I like it, too,” he said, with nothing but an internal smile, now settled and still once more behind his eyes.

 

Having finished my tea, I handed him the empty mug, and, putting on my coat, said “I guess I’d better get going. We’ll be leaving for town soon.” 

 

He pushed open the door and waited, standing aside, for me to step outside before following me and closing the door behind him. As I turned to say goodbye, I saw the face of a racoon appear briefly in the bushes at the edge of the small cleared area. It quickly turned and vanished.

 

Teddy had seen it too. “That’s Ralph,” he said. “He’s a friend.”

 

“I thought racoons were untamable. I’ve heard they can be dangerous,” I said.

 

“Oh, yes,” said Teddy. “He’s not tame. He just comes to live near me about this time of year. This is the third year. He hangs out and eats with me. Last year he climbed down from the roof onto my shoulder. Now he’ll sit on my shoulder sometimes and come with me into the woods. He won’t let anyone else come near him. “ 

 

“That’s amazing!” I said. 

 

“Yes, but it’s a big responsibility. I have to make sure he doesn’t get into things in the outdoor kitchen. He’s learned to open jars. Their paws are almost hands. And I have to make sure I have enough for us both to eat.”

 

He paused for a moment, looking out into the trees.

 

“He came to me so I’m responsible for him. But it’s not just him.”  He looked all around us. 

 

Indicating a broad circle around us with his outstretched hand, he said, “I’m responsible for everything in my universe, the cabin, the trees, the rocks, the plants, the animals, the humans, the insects, everything. I care for them constantly.”

 

He looked away as if the act of speaking this had been a serious decision, a risk.

 

He followed deferentially behind me down the path towards the main house in the big old sugar shack, where several people bunked together. Just before the garden, put to bed for the winter, he stopped. 

 

“Thanks for showing me your cabin. See you later,” I said, and walked on.

 

A few steps later, I turned  to see him still standing there, contained, straight yet at ease;  solitary, in his way. He waved. I waved back, reflecting his respect–for me, as part of his universe with the plants, the earth, the animals, the bark of the trees; for him, as part of mine, still living inside me now along with the paths through the forest, the walks with friends down the road in the snow, and the unbelievable illumination of the blazing colors of the trees for those brief days in the autumns of Vermont. It is living alongside the sight of the dark, furry pine  trees that I see through my window in this moment of my life,  an accompaniment to the browns and greys of the bare branched trees, vibrating always upward.

Winter Light With Birds

In the morning
It looked like rain in the air
But it was just the light
Crinkling through the little bits of mist
Here and there
As the sun broke over the southern hills

Now the warm areas of glowing light
Have settled so briefly
Along the tops of the hills to the east
Lingering for a few more moments in the north
Before fading into grey.
The air is dimming
Drained of sparkle
Quieting.

In between these moments of shifting light
The winter warmth radiated from the pure blue
And birds flew in all their crazy patterns
In the same world we seem to inhabit
But in another perhaps entirely
Ignorant of the thoughts of all of us
In these strange blocks of stone and wood
Not heeding our motions
Except in odd moments of curiosity
Perched on a wire, watching
As when we stop to hear the sounds
Of what we count as song.
.
Here we are. Our lives stretching out
This way and that way
Through the air.
On the wind
We sniff the fragrance of one emotion
Or another. A message across the room
Or across the globe
Thousands of miles
Carried by the light
By the wind
By the air
Random
Like the flights of birds.
Finding its mark like
The falcon
Soaring then plunging down
Through the warm
Afternoon sun.

 

A New Year and A Memory of Violets

The year is quickly coming to an end. I suppose we have a need for beginnings and endings, however arbitrary. The world of people around me seems paused, a bit listless, waiting, relaxed but a little bored.

Here, they are anticipating a feast on New Year’s Eve, perhaps some inebriated viewing of fireworks down by a lake. For me, it will be quiet, one day just melding into the next.

The ground is covered with frost these last few mornings, the sky clear and blue-grey until the sun rises high enough over the foothills to fill it with that intense yet evanescent blue of winter. Last night the moon hung there above the mountains in its most fragile form, the slimmest crescent facing Jupiter, the two sparkling and exerting their magnetism, one towards the other. A concert of such delicacy and jollity that it was almost unbearable.

Things are beginning to hum a bit now as the village comes to life in its Sunday form, some people driving to the boulangerie before it closes at noon, only to reopen on Tuesday. One or two quietly, almost secretly perhaps going to church in the town nearby but more going to hike somewhere in the mountains, their “batons” stored in the trunk. Soon there will be cyclists going by, just one or two now and then, not the chatting groups of summer, coming one after another down the road that lead up to Montsegur.

This is my occupation as I sit, not disturbing too much the bone that is mending itself stealthily with new cells somehow, deep inside, blood carrying the materials where they are needed. Who knows?

This afternoon I lay down for a nap in my study, the sunlight streaming in the southern window, a chill still in the room. In the moments of waking, the great luxury of it bathing me, the little memories of a Christmas some sixty years ago floated in on the particular quality of the light.

When I was some eight or nine years old, my father gave me a box of candied violets for Christmas. What else he gave me that year in the usual extravagance of his Christmas giving, I can no longer remember. There were certainly marzipan figures of Santas and snowmen and apples and peaches in my stocking and expensive toys under the tree, but it’s the beautiful little hat-box-like container with a violet colored satin ribbon handle that captivated me.

When at first I unwrapped it, I remember only the delight of how pretty it was, violet and cream with clusters of painted purple violets strewn around on the label. The words on the box were in French, a language I’d already begun to learn in my enlightened school. My mother spoke French and taught it sometimes in the schools where she worked. She read aloud the writing on the box as she pointed to the words, “Les Violettes de Toulouse”.

Entranced by the evocation of a city far away, I gently worked the top off the cylindrical box. Inside, cushioned in violet-colored tissue, were the purple violets I knew from my days of playing near the stream where they grew up in the grass and between the rocks. I picked them for decorations for my tiny rock villages. But somehow these had been transformed into fragile-seeming crystal rocks. A fragrance of sweet flowers and sugar, somehow a bit musky like the leaves of the forest floor. Pulling back the tissue, I inhaled and inhaled again, sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree, The light in the big windows of the living room warming my cheeks, I touched them, all packed together, crunching a bit against each other. With my thumb and finger, I pulled one from its nest and put it in the palm of my hand where I could study it better.

“Eat it!” said my father.

“Really?” I asked, aghast.

“Yes,” he chuckled. “It’s candy made of real violets.”

I put it in my mouth. The sugar began to melt, carrying with it a flavor on the tongue of that fragrance of the sweetest of flowers, of spring forest and sunlight, of gardens from picture books–a revelation. I crunched it a bit between my teeth, a delicate crunching like nothing else, a little explosion of a flavor sweet and touched with the slightest acid of green stems.  A treasure from France.

For the next month, as school resumed and the days became ordinary once again, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, going to my room to change out of school clothes, there it would be, that exotic box, waiting there. I’d hurry, and half changed, eat just one, letting it melt on my tongue like that first moment under the Christmas tree, recalling something extraordinary, something of another world.

I wanted to make the box of them last forever, but, of course, well before spring, they were gone. The empty box with its tissue paper sat on my dresser for years, a hiding places for treasures, preserving just a small whiff of the fragrance of France–violets.

Now this memory transplants itself to the Toulouse I am getting to know, a city of rosy red brick buildings, of a beautiful tea shop, a cozy restaurant, a beautiful square, parking garages, spreading banlieus and streets filled with university students and demonstrating yellow-vests and police barriers.  A place where, at a Prefecture in an office building, we got the Cartes Sejours that allow us to continue to live in France. Now I remember it is also the city of violets, the city of those transfigured flowers.

The light recedes onto the eastern hills, rosy. Another day is passing. There will be a fire in the woodstove and dinner with vegetables from the garden. Somewhere in all of this a transition must be happening, a movement of one cycle into another, spiralling onwards.

 

 

 

The Dream

Swim I said, “Come swim  with me!”  

Tide shifts soon from dark to light. 

We float adrift in some vast sea

Where forms are hazy, lost from sight.

Here we dwell where even stars

In their nature are not bright

Seen through remnants of desire

Present only through some sense

Drawn from nights we spent with fire.

Time is done, this space untethered , so immense.

The forms of day can only catch us

By setting clever traps of pretence.

 

“Swim,” I said, “Come swim with me”

The passage through from night to night 

 Is sought in dream and memory.

Nothing hold us from our flight

Through dim cool tunnels drawn by tide

Concealed from senses smell and sight

Discovered only when we slide

Through some great hole unknown by mind

That travels inside to inside.

Here where we drift, we’re far from blind

This nothing is where sight begins

Here exists the unconfined.

 

Swim with me. “Come swim with me!”

Dark is drifting into light

Let us surface from this sea

Yet hold the vastness of this night. 

Let us slip the reins of earth

That grasp and clutch to hold us tight.

Swim the swelling of that well

In the silence calm and deep

Float where only being dwells.

 

dav