Cutting Away

With the onslaught of Executive Orders and reports of upcoming edicts about immigration, the day was a difficult one. This heaviness in the heart is hard to navigate. The refugees who will now be unable to find refuge here. The suffering of so many penetrates to the core of things.

My mind, restless for answers, turns to thoughts of growing food.  Late in the afternoon, with the gray cover of clouds giving the world a taste of cottony metal, the air milder than the last few days, we went out to prune trees in the orchard. We started with the Asian Pears, scraggly, branching this way and that, turning towards the warmth of the sun, now pushed by the wind from the Fraser Valley, pushed in the spring by the pervasive southwest winds.

We are bundled up and peel as we go. I am still learning. Walter has the experience of forty-five-odd years and the deep intuitive sense that comes from planting these trees and working with them for all the time of their growing here on the farm, watching them, feeding them, protecting them. The question is, over and over, what will ask the tree to produce its fruit, what will give it space and light, maybe not this spring but in some spring to come.

I start by cutting away the obvious water spouts—the straight stalks that spring up from a horizontal branch, growing up and up quickly during some abundant time of water, sun and nutrients, not pausing to allow a spur to grow, no patience for the time it takes for a bud to form. The blades cut through as I squeeze the handles of the big loppers together with all my force. These branches, growing vertically as they do, drop straight to the ground as I clip them. Seeing the weight of the wood as it falls fills me for a moment with plaguing doubts whose painful swirling make me conscious of my separation from everything else, drawing in my attention to the confines of my body as a swarm of bees around my head might do. My heart is suddenly heavy again. Having the sense to stop and breathe, I look up into the branches against the gray sky. The presence of the soft flow of energy beneath my feet reestablishes itself, moving through the structure of a tree, moving gently even in the midst of winter when the growth pauses.

I begin to cut away all the little twigs that pull energy from the main flow. Then I cut the branches curving down and the branches curving in towards the center of the tree. Absorbed, I work to make the tree feel open in its center, spreading out its limbs to welcome warmth and bees and breezes, shortening a branch here and there to keep it out of the way of its neighbor and give the remaining wood more strength. Walter comes over from the apple tree he’s topping to show me how to look at the energy of the tree and to be decisive as the tree guides you, boldly and confidently sawing off a big branch here and there to provide the shape and balance. There’s a certain brutality to it, but the result for the tree feels harmonious, balanced.

“What’s the first thing to remember when you’re pruning?” Walter asks.
I respond “Make clean cuts,” thinking of my roses and of his past instruction.
“Yes,” he says, “that, but also that nature will fix all our mistakes.”
When a tendency is thwarted, it will come back in another way. The art of it is to sense where this life wants to go and not get caught in your worries.

We quietly work together on one tree for a time, he using the pole pruner to cut away high branches. Standing back to see the whole, he says,
“Okay. It’s good. Enough.”
I walk over to stand next to him and see what he is seeing.
“Yes. It feels right.”
Standing there, I actually get the sense the potential energy still sequestered deep in the earth and in the tree’s core will now spread itself with more economy. Satisfying.

As the sun begins to set, we walk around the orchard to look at the other trees, using the attunement we’ve gained in the last hour to see what remains to be done. The presence of the fruit is already there. I can smell it in the soil and the damp air. Food will be there in its cycle. My heart is clear now, warm like my hands, ready for what comes next.

The Walk


You have to pay close attention to all the beings you encounter, whether seen or unseen–sometimes both at once. They are openings.

Today for instance, the air is clear, cold and bright with blue movement from the water to the left and blue stretching infinitely above. I’ve been walking for some time, up the beach into the sun and now back down, crunching on the rocky layers mingled with crab shells, rocks and bright bits of seaweed.

Ahead on the beach, cold and a bit windy in the sparkling clear winter sun, is a small patch of yellow. At first, it seems to be some small recreational yellow boat propped up on the shore for the winter. As I walk, other components of this blob began to come into focus. It, too, is moving. As I watch, I begin to see the black lines of legs protruding from the bottom, carrying the yellow rectangle slowly away from me. I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

I had been enjoying the solitude of the blue ocean, the blue sky, houses either shuttered for the season or uninhabited in the middle of the day. A bit of regret at the sighting. It seems to be moving slowly enough that I’ll overtake it.

As I continued my walk, the figure came slowly into focus. A yellow waterproof coat covered most of a small figure whose shoulders were curved forward and slightly to one side, the yellow hood pulled up to cover the head. This bundle moved slowly forward, pausing every so often, moving a bit toward the water and then back as it progressed, uneven. A small black and white dog appeared briefly as it ran past the yellow figure towards me and then away again.

I was coming quickly towards them. Closer up, I saw the profile of a woman’s face, sunglasses covering her eyes as she looked out towards the water, white woolen watchman’s cap under the hood. She turned again to walk before I was close enough to be a presence. As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

As I began to overtake her, the dog spotted me from up ahead and began to run back. I sniffed and breathed heavily to alert her of my approach. As the dog passed her, I also began to overtake her and she turned, a bit startled, saying,

“Oh! I wondered what that shadow was, falling on the beach! There you are.”

We both had stopped, she turning towards me on her right. I looked briefly to my left into a face somehow slightly twisted, canted, as the yellow package had been, with a mouth slightly curved down on one side, set around with the downward lines of wrinkles. Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile

Her eyes were hidden by the dark glasses but the glint of her smile traveled plainly through the darkness. The dog was bounced at me on its forefeet, urgently excited to see another human. I bent to greet it, taking my eyes from her smile and meeting his. He let his head be scratched for a moment before bounding ahead once again.  It seemed to be his mode of ambulation–run off, return, jump, run off. 

I glanced back at her, standing still next to me, turned, curious. We shifted around each other to come side by side so we could resume our walking. As we set off, she turned towards me, that turning of her head seeming to require a manoeuvre of her whole body as if one with her torso.

She asked where I lived on the beach, slyly probing to see what this stranger was doing on her beach. I told her I wasn’t from the beach, but from a small farm a couple of miles to the southeast. I asked where she lived and she said,

“Well, we’re up here. We’re beach-facers.” She smiled at me.

The dog came and dropped a sand covered tennis ball in my path. I picked it up. My first mistake. I threw it a short way, he grabbed it and bounced back. This same routine continued for the rest of our walk, punctuating the flow of conversation.

As we walked slowly, keeping pace and pausing for the dog and for the answers in our conversation, she asked the name of the street where I lived. I told her and gave her some landmarks. She wondered if her children had known someone there growing up. We came to no conclusion. I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

I told her our farm is for sale and, as we meandered along in our talk, it eventually emerged we are moving to France. This brought a spark to her eyes. She stopped and turned towards me and said,

”Really! What takes you there?”

I explained about extended family, dreams and desire and she herself began to dream. She was quiet for a moment as we stood, I having thrown the ball again, then said,

“When the kids were little we were in France. We went to London, bought a van, fitted it out a bit for camping and traveled down through France, into Spain, then over to Italy, up through Austria, into Czechoslovakia and from there to Germany. We ended up back in London and we shipped the van back to Montreal. We had been living in Massachusetts, so we flew to Montreal, picked up the van, drove back to Massachusetts, packed up our stuff and drove cross-country to Washington. We’ve been here ever since.”

She paused while I threw the ball again, trying hard to give it a good pitch. Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

Then she said “Travel is so wonderful. It brings such joy. I’m glad you’re doing that.”

We continued to walk, talking about the cold with its biting wind and how we didn’t mind it a bit with the bright sun. We had both spent time in colder climates on the East Coast, as we discovered. Her small form, spare, seemed to scintillate with energy beside me. She enquired where I was going through, back to the road. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

She enquired where I was going through, back to the road from the beach. I was an interloper on the privacy of the properties lining the beach, but she was one of the oldest hands and was clearly not bothered. I pointed to where I’d come in and she said,

“I think you may not be able to get around there with the tide in a bit. Come. You can come up through our place. Not here. Down a little way.”

We walked on in silence for a bit, the dog having found something interesting on the beach ahead. 

I looked over at the houses to my right, a pretence to surreptitiously glance once more at her profile. There was something somehow so familiar and intimate in the twisted mouth, the downward gaze, the focus yet abstraction of her presence. My sense of self, usually diffuse, took up a place in relation to her, alert, open, aware of some subtle union between us. After a bit, she pointed up to the houses, smiled again and said,

“We’re up here.”

Stooped slightly, her whole body turning in its yellow package, we walked up towards a concrete wall. I paused for a moment, a bit perplexed, but she motioned up. I pulled myself up the huge step, wondering how she was able to still accomplish the same. She stretched one leg up and boosted herself nicely. She turned towards the water and said, 

“The tide can come up right to the top of that step. See the marks on the other wall? That’s where it came in the summer. It might again.”

It might, we agreed, depending on what nature herself determines. She led me along a path next to the house to a gate going through to a driveway and the road. Awkwardly, I fumbled with the gate, she standing, a bit distracted. We both seemed discomfited, unwilling to let go of the intimacy but finding no bridge to extend it.

“Thank you,” I said, “for a lovely walk.”

“Good luck to you,” she said. “Keep warm.”

I turned, moving away a wheelbarrow that had blocked the entrance, and took my leave down the road. I have carried her presence with me ever since, held it close and will, I’m sure, let it into my dreams. There is a boundary, yet none exists.

Conversation of the Poets

Why is the small more important than the big? It was a challenge, written on a slip of paper and left on her dresser.
It was a riddle that threatened to uproot all justifications, all questions.
“Why is the small more important than the big?”

It was itself a question that contained everything, and there, perhaps, the answer.

The Great Owl hooted in the night. One call. Then silence, perhaps only silence. Another call. A short hollow note, a shorter almost grace note, a longer hollow tone. Silence. It was the call that gave the silence its existence. No other owl answers.

The big is contained in every atom of the small.

The silent, infinite expanse is contained in every particle of matter. The matter itself is barely there, if it could be said to be there at all.

A second question, on the other side of the folded slip. “Why is death preferable to life?”

Death is the infinite which expands within every breath of life, every pulse, she answered.

The three-quarter moon rising in the east and the eagle, white head barely visible, coming to perch in the top branches of the big cottonwood as the sun was low in the southwestern sky behind him. If I had not seen the tremendous motion of its wings as it flew to the tree and settled, I would not have noticed even the great mass of it as it became part of the dark stillness of the branches. Every few moments, I returned to the window to look as the colors of the day faded slowly, then quickly. His presence became less and less distinct until, when the last gold of the sun had completely extinguished, it had melted into the gray and black of encroaching night, I, unsure whether his presence had actually been or whether I had noticed a particular vibration of the night, barely visible in the light.

It is the night that is the ground of all being, light but a temporary condition of speeding vibration that passes, stirring the emptiness with its weightless breath, through that infinite space without boundary, without definition. Are we the breath or the emptiness? Who? The hollow tone. Who, who?

The Art of the Infinite

The sun was opening up swathes of brightness through the clouds, pools of sunlight spreading through the fir trees and onto the grass.  The car found its way into a parking spot on the drive near the front of the museum guided by some visceral memory of the circular drive around the dark hill at the entrance of the park. She got out and walked down the sidewalk to see the full east-facing entrance to the Museum. It was just as she remembered, yellow-white smooth stone and panels of etched glass gazing blankly out past the grand opening through the trees on the other side of the road, out towards the white pyramid of the volcano, poised in the middle of this symmetry.

As she approached the glass doors, there was a fragrance, if only in the mind, of some mildly oriental incense, of some kind of calm green and blue excitement, of a woman’s perfume mixed with fir scents and the cold, clear notes of marble and granite. Or maybe it was chilled music that touched the senses as subtly as fragrance.  Hard to tell. It reminded her of the moment, years ago, in the Modern Art Museum at the Smithsonian, when, as she walked down the swoop of the white marble staircase with a sense of the elegant expanse of air, of an openness all around yet defined, she caught sight of a friend she hadn’t seen for months, there with her mother, standing as if they had just entered the museum. Then she had been swept by a sense of the poetry inherent in moments of such confluence of beauty, memory and emotion. As she was now.

It was a day set apart. A moment seized, unanticipated. Going through the doors, there was a brief moment of disorientation, of change. Memory slipped out of place. A young woman stood guard at the opening to an atrium. Just beyond her, statues of Hindu gods were balanced on the walls and chairs and tables were set around as if for an outdoor café. Different somehow. The woman at the opening smiled and, with a gesture of her arm, directed her to the ticket desk hidden at the side.  The man at the desk, sober and dark, worked with his computer and then handed her the ticket. No limits of time. No demands.

She wandered into the atrium, taking surreptitious photos of a mother, young and graceful in the midst of her shed belongings, seated on a café chair, discreetly nursing her baby. She, of course, could feel the momentary direction of energy towards her back and turned slightly to catch the photographer snapping shots of the Shiva statue perched on the wall.  The graceful young woman settled back to her baby and the photographer moved on to the gallery through the door.

When she was young, she had met some interesting people, one in a town in Vermont. He was someone who frequented the food co-op, wearing the clothes of a farmer, but not one. His long blond hair fell in ringlets and combined with his beard, curling under his chin. That, along with the slight rosiness of his cheeks and the blue of his eyes, gave the ironic impression of a Fragonard angel. One day as he was shambling down the street in the small town, she decided to say hello. They had a friend in common that gave her a bridge into conversation. They saw each other several times over the next weeks, and then, when the winter holidays were approaching and they were both going back to family, she asked him for a ride in his camper truck to New York City. She could easily catch a train from there to her hometown in New Jersey. The memory of this journey connected with the objects of the museum in one of those internal sworls of mind.

They headed down the road in the evening a few days before Christmas with his German Shephard, Blue, in the back of the camper truck. The cab of the truck was cozy and they talked for hours as you do at the beginning of friendship. When he discovered they were nearly out of gas, it was already late into the night, somewhere in upstate New York. He said he had an uncle who lived in the town coming up and he knew where he kept a can of gas in his garage. We pulled up to a dark house where he found a key to the garage under a pot. In the dark, he found a gas can which he emptied into the truck and they were on their way again. It was only the next day he discovered he’d used his uncle’s kerosene instead of the gas. It was part, somehow, of the whole of it all.  Somewhere along the ride, they’d asked each other about their families. He’d told her that his was not particularly close. His father was a doctor who was busy a lot and his mother a psychiatrist who was fairly distant. He gave the impression they were a rather ordinary family living in an apartment somewhere on the east side, not far from the river. He said they would be fine with putting her up for the night.

She slept for a while. Sometime after midnight, she woke up as they pulled up in the large drive in front of an enormous building where a doorman in livery was awake all night, watching the door. As her friend opened the truck door and stepped out, the doorman came out of the building through the glass doors of the entrance, smiling, greeted her friend by name and hugged him. As she began groggily collecting her things, her friend took Blue of the back of the truck. As the dog started to look around for a place to pee, lifting his leg after the long ride, her friend rummaged in the back for the leash. Realizing it wasn’t there, he pulled the belt from his loose, dirty jeans and improvised a tether around his collar. Ragtag as they were, the doorman joyously ushered them all in through the enormous sliding glass doors, into the waiting elevator. When she asked her friend “Which floor,” he said, “It’s at the top. This is where Johnny Carson lives, too, and Truman Capote, parts of the year.”  As he pushed the button, she felt the sweat of a long day, and the damp crumple of her cotton shirt tucked into jeans that hadn’t been washed for several uses and felt some stirring of self-consciousness that combined itself, as they began their ascent, with the sinking of her stomach and the sleepiness in her head.

After a long climb, the elevator doors opened and her friend knocked on the door that faced them. After a few minutes, it was opened by an elegant woman with blue eyes and stylishly timed blond hair. She wrapped an arm around her son’s shoulders and ushered them in, as if greeting guests at two in the morning were a common event. Here is where the stories begin to converge.

They walked together through the entrance hall towards a partially opened door where the lights of a kitchen could be seen. She turned down another short hall and opened the door to her son’s room, which was immaculate and clearly expensively designed. As he put down his things on the bed, his mother said, “Your friend will sleep in the Ming room. It’s all set up. Show her where it is. I’m going to bed. Welcome! See you both in the morning.”

Her friend kissed his mother good night as she smiled and turned to go down the hallway. He gestured for her to follow behind his mother who quickly vanished through a hidden passage.  She continued ahead of him and found herself in a huge room surrounded by windows that seemed at least fifteen feet high, revealing the black night sky and a full landscape of skyscrapers’ lights. As she turned to take it in, there through the windows on one end of the room was the familiar outline of the United Nations Building, standing guard next to a dark river, a dominating presence through the glass. Large forms in cases loomed here and there in the dim expanse of the room. She turned and whispered, “What are those big things?” “Ancient Chinese bronzes,” he replied, “Bells and urns.”  Quite awake now, she said, “What is this? Where are we?”  “In my parents’ apartment,” he said. “My father is a collector. Come this way. I’ll show you to your room.”

She turned to face the stairway as he pointed behind them. In front of the staircase sat an astonishing figure, which she first took to be alive, one arm extended gracefully over a lifted bent knee, one leg curled under him as he looked out at them serenely. It was a man with long hair, lithe, clothed only in what were now just bare outlines of a loincloth, life-sized, carved of some light colored wood, riddled with wormholes, ancient yet intact. His presence was penetrating and palpable. She recognized him immediately somehow and was understood. Now calmly alert, attentive, she climbed the stairs behind her friend. They found the door to the bedroom, opened it and switched on a soft light to reveal a four-postered bed of dark wood with a flat canopy, simple and elegant. “That’s it,” he said, “The Ming bed. It’s actually more comfortable than it looks. I think you’ll like it.” He said goodnight and closed the door.

The next morning there was a tour of the bronzes, and an introduction to his balding, spectacled, Jewish father who strangely seemed delighted to meet her, this guest slipped in during the night. The father invited them into his study where there was coffee in porcelain cups and beautiful Persian miniatures, populated with elegant figures and lovers, and he showed her marvellous lithographs and etchings of artwork done for famous books. Marvel after marvel. Large Picasso painting of people feasting, eating lobster, in the dining room.

Months later, his son sat with her in his family’s estate on Long Island while he unpacked suitcases full of ancient Chinese artefacts that had just been delivered for his father, unwrapping each to handle and inspect it. This was when she saw the small jade bowl.  This was when she held in her hands a bowl made of light green jade, perhaps of the Tang Dynasty, precious beyond wealth, exquisite. It was so delicate it seemed to weigh as much as a bird’s feather, yet was big enough to be held in both hands. It was perfectly smooth over its entire surface, with no indication of any carving or etching. Yet the design of a lotus (or perhaps a chrysanthemum) was clearly apparent in the bowl’s bottom. When held ever so carefully up to the light from the window, the flower design floated somehow within the jade, etched in some uncanny way within, etheric, impossible.  Its beauty was a being, the soul of the stone itself, the cool slight pressure in the cup of her hands like a life. Of all the miraculous objects, this and the ancient wooden sage were the ones that stayed with her for the forty-five years that stretched between those objects and the ones of the Asian Art Museum.

These images walked with her as she entered an airy gallery lined with windows. Each tall window framed scenes of trees and sky in the park beyond. Three large glass cases each contained an enormous jade disc, ceremonial plates of different designs, each of slightly different tones of green, deep as oceans or light as heavens. Each floated between worlds. She stood in front of one and then another for long, long moments, mind as empty and infinite as the round surface of the plate, lost in the colors captured within endless layers of glaze—lost in the perfection of the curves and the roundness.  It is true there is no linear time. Here, as we’re perched on the swing of one year into the next, the transition point of one season at its depth into another, there is no way but to go beyond.