Archives for posts with tag: mortality

We keep having these days, and then we have the day after.

On the day after, there is shock and pain and horror; there is fear; there is the latest bit of maddening news that does nothing to solve anything.

And today, where I live, there’s a breeze rippling the catnip and lamb’s ear, the one blooming, the other about to bloom.

How much grief can a single body hold? How much love and joy? If you look into the eyes of any old woman or old man on the sidewalk in your town, you’ll see the history of pain in America, in the world. You’ll see agonizing deaths and illness and Jim Crow and rape and lies and infidelities and car accidents and smashed dreams. Amid the ashes, the wars, the broken bones, you will see kaleidoscopic bits of yourself.

You’ll also see starlight and cornfields and a newborn’s first smile. First jobs and teary reunions and bonfires on the beach. Long embraces on back stairways. New York City glimpsed from an airplane. Graduation day. River water on cold toes. You’ll see yourself, again.

Once, years ago, not long after my mother died, my friend Jay was consoling me on the elevator at work as we went to teach our classes. He told me what a nun said to him during his own time of loss: “Look for Jesus in the breeze, not in the gale.'” The elevator door opened, and I put that remark away to ponder for a lifetime.

We all have our own ways of dealing with private grief, politicized outrage, bottomless fear and sorrow. We think our thoughts, we do what we can.

In my corner of the world, on the day after, my eyes are tired. I have read enough. I glance again at the ripening flowers, the sky, the bumblebee. What would they say, what are they saying? I look and listen. The breeze travels on, from here to the moon and on to the ocean.

 

 

On a country road not far from where I live, there’s a house I never notice except in the spring. Dozens of daffodils press against the front of this ragged little place. It looks abandoned, but the daffodils couldn’t care less. They are wildly happy the way daffodils always are, their gold faces drinking in the sun and sky.

Who planted them, I wonder, and when?

I dial back the years to 1950 or so and picture a young woman in calico with an apron full of bulbs. She kneels down in the light of a breezy September morning and gets to work. As her trowel pierces the red-clay earth, she thinks about her ailing mom or her husband’s upcoming birthday or a poem she would like to write if she can ever find time. She drops in the first bulb and keeps going down the row.

“I’ll have these to look at in the spring,” she tells herself.

She is sturdy and strong. A week after planting the bulbs, she learns she’s pregnant with her first child. The joy she feels flows out of her hands and hair and into the air around the little house. When the daffodils bloom, she is nearly eight months pregnant, big and round and eager to get on with things. Bending down to gather a bouquet, she laughs at herself when she nearly topples over.

The bulbs will replicate over time. She and her husband will have four babies in seven years; three will survive. The name of the oldest, the one growing inside her while she planted those bulbs, will be etched on a shining wall in Washington, D.C.

When the news of her son’s death arrives, the woman will be living far from the daffodils. She will be separated from her husband, angry at the world. It will be ages before she can laugh again.

But the time comes when the tight petals of her heart slowly open. She takes night classes, has grandchildren, helps a fragile friend. The years drift by.

One day a nurse at the doctor’s office comments on the beauty of her eyes and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. She goes home, takes off her glasses, looks in the mirror: her eyes are as blue as the sky above Rapidan, Virginia.

It’s been a long time since she thought of that place. Something comes to her–a flickering of light, a rush of gold. Wasn’t there a poem she always meant to write, a few things she really wanted to say? She had meant to say them all these years.

The telephone rings: her granddaughter, on her way to take her to lunch.

She smooths her hair and sits down to wait. Outside the high windows of her apartment, a hawk flies by. It is a clear, calm day. The kitchen clock ticks. She rummages around in her purse for the notepad she uses for her grocery list.

The buzzer sounds just as she writes a single word, followed by a year. “It’s a beginning,” she thinks as she stands up and hurries to answer the door.

daffodils

I feel bad for stink bugs. They are so little and pathetic. All they want is a place to crawl freely, some air to fly around in, a crumb to nibble. Yes, they are proliferating, and yes, they do stink when subjected to bodily harm. And yes, they are damaging crops. But as individuals, members of the Pentatomidae family just might deserve our compassion.

Like English professors angling to be chosen for a kickball team, they are wildly unpopular. There are people—perhaps you among them—who openly discuss ways to kill stink bugs. There is talk of stuffing them in the garbage, sucking them up in vacuum cleaners, and even cracking their sturdy little shells with a clothespin. But worst of all—and most popular, it seems—is the drowning of stink bugs in the toilet. I can hardly hear a flush anymore without cringing for the lives lost.

What do stink bugs themselves have to say about their plight? What are the dreams they hold close to their little thoraxes? A couple of summers ago, Roberta Culbertson told me she’d had a conversation with one. She grew evasive when I asked for details, but apparently there had been real sharing and no language barrier to speak of.

With Roberta’s experience in mind, and the plight of stink bugs weighing ever more heavily on me, I decided to seek one out for an interview. I started in the bathroom where there were several of them clinging to the slats of the venetian blinds. It was a sunny morning and they were sluggish until they saw my hand looming above them. My plan was to catch one, transport it to the kitchen, and offer it a bit of baked potato—you know, put it at ease, before getting all up in its antennae.

But no sooner had I grabbed one that I felt the familiar scrabbling inside my fist, the desperate kicking of tiny legs. This was not shaping up to be a relaxed exchange for either one of us. The bug was no doubt aware of the toilet bowl’s proximity, and how could it know I just wanted to talk?

I let it go and watched it fly in ever-widening circles before it returned to the blinds and no doubt said terrible things about me to its alarmed friends.

Downstairs, several were lounging on the kitchen windowsill, but they looked so sleepy I decided to leave them alone. I saw two on the edge of the trashcan but sensed an insurmountable class difference and decided not to bother. There were quite a few more on the front porch, but unfortunately, they were dead—victims of a large, moth-filled spider web woven between the rafters. Anyone familiar with Robert Frost’s “Design” will understand why I turned on my heel and went back inside.

In the living room I finally struck gold. There was a stink bug, its brown shield gleaming in the sun, sitting up on its back legs and meditatively inspecting the base of my Kalanchoe plant. I approached slowly and extended a finger. It looked at my finger and then up at me. I bent down to eye level.

Was it possible the creature was wearing spectacles? A reader! I could hardly believe my good fortune.

“Well, hello,” I said. “How’s it going?”

Silence. But I sensed a willingness to hear me out.

“Would you consent to an interview? I think it’s time your side of the story got told.”

A brief, affirmative ruffling of wings!

“I can’t pay you for this interview,” I continued breathlessly, “but there might be a bit of pinot grigio spilled on the kitchen table tonight, if you know what I mean.”

My new acquaintance hopped on a fleshy green leaf, then hopped down. This was as close to a nod of agreement as I could hope for.

Sensing that time was of the essence, I eased my Genius Phone out of my pocket and hit the appropriate button on the recorder app.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Mallory.” Her voice was so dear and soft I could barely hear it.

“Mallory, what do you think of—well, what do you think of the war being waged against you and your kind?”

She bowed her head. That was answer enough.

“Do you have any favorite poems?”

She slowly raised herself up and looked at me again. Her spectacles gave off a silvery twinkle. Then she spoke rapidly.

I nodded my head to show I was listening, though in fact I could hear very little.

After she was done, she walked around to the other side of the flowerpot and hid from me. I knew she was exhausted. I thanked her for her time and told her the wine bar would be open—hint, hint—around ten o’clock.

Later, when I played back the interview, all I could hear during her answers was my own breathing. And yes, I wept.

When I looked for her the next morning, the kitchen was deserted. In the living room, two unfamiliar stink bugs were sitting in the dirt surrounding the Kalanchoe. The air carried a sad stench.

Then, to my absolute horror, I heard a crackling under my shoe: I had walked right over Mallory’s body. I don’t believe I killed her—let’s just say there are cats of interest in this case. But I do take responsibility for the shattering of her spectacles.

The poems, you must be exploding by now, what were Mallory’s favorite poems!

There is but one title I caught for certain: “The Departure” by Denise Levertov. Read it, reader, and think of Mallory as you pack your bags.

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