This is the way it works.
You return to a town where you used to live.
You go on a short walk, on a street you have walked many times.
You are only stretching your back and legs and getting a few more steps in so your Fitbit will be happy at the end of the day.
You are only walking because it is such a pretty little town. Whenever you return here, you remember why it charmed you, for so many years.
This — Fitbit, stretch — is why you are out walking on this unseasonably cold November day. Yes?
No. While this is true as far as it goes, it does not go all the way. You are walking because you are discombobulated, also. As you walk, you bear down on what this discombobulation is.
You find you are sad. You hang out with this. It's a newish practice for you, to just stay, quietly, with less-than-comfortable emotions. Neither repressing nor indulging these emotions, merely naming, then feeling, watching.
This, you believe, is what adults do. So. You are sad.
It is, after all, November. A month that begins with "No." A month that has your name on it.
A month of short days, and long memory.
The month in which your husband died, fourteen years ago.
The month in which your mother died, one year ago.
The month of your birth. Of your late father’s birth.
The month of Thanksgiving, laden holiday, groaning board of food and recall.
But. Though laden at present, though sad, you are not stopped. No.
Look at this second, for instance. You got up, after all. You decided to move your body through space. You are doing so. On this brief walk. Along this exceptionally interesting, quiet, charming street, once much-loved, still much-loved (though, in your case, with ambivalence).
You stop to admire the Grotto Spring. There has been a cold snap. The two enormous ferns guarding the grotto have turned from bright green to frost-hit gray overnight.
Is this a speeded-up version of what has happened to you?
No. You are not a frost-nipped fern.There is no need to anthropomorphize everything you see. Just because you are watching yourself in a moment where the emotional weather is sadness.
But, like the fern, you are a living creature. You wear corporeal form. As such, you, like the fern, like everything with wings, fronds, feet, scales, fur, claws, skin, like everything ansd everyone made of tissue, of molecules, like every human friend, every enemy, every relative, you have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
So in that sense, yes.
You turn away from Grotto Spring to look in the other direction. This means you are gazing out and across a small wooded valley. Again, this is terrain you once knew well.
Though you no longer live here, you can still be said to know it.
In this part of the world, valleys are called “hollows.” (An 1995-ish era computer store in the area was called "Silicon Hollow.")
The valley you are now looking at is called Dairy Hollow. The last remaining family dairy in this small town was still extant when you moved here as an 18-year-old, in 1971. There, in a small neat farmhouse just up the hill from you, lived a feisty blue-eyed widow named Ethel Rhiel, who milked eight jersey cows by hand twice each day. You loved her, and she was fond of you."I never was what you could call religious," she told you once. "One day when I was a little girl, I told my mother, after we'd heard some fire-and-brimstone preacher, 'I don't believe in hell, because rocks don't burn!' "
It shocks you to realize that Ethel has been gone from Dairy Hollow for at least forty years now.
You have written two books which both used "Dairy Hollow" in their titles. The first (published in 1986) is still going, the second (published in 1992) is long out of print.
You can see that tiny farm, once Ethel's, across the road, down one side of the hollow and up the other, nestled in maybe a mile away by foot (less as the crow flies), in the midst of the late fall colors. Colors that are still present but only barely; now the deciduous trees are mostly brown, against the dark greens of the conifers.
Just down from the old Rhiel place is the small house in which you lived for many years, six of them by yourself, 15 or 20 of them with your late husband. That house is now owned and lived in, after being renovated extensively and with charm, by an old, dear friend. This is a surprising turn of events, but it is one that leaves you feeling grateful.
So, and you hear yourself think this, much to your surprise. So. You have not lost everything.
Ah. Now we are getting somewhere. Closer to what underlies this sadness.
You turn over past and present as you look across the hollow. Clearly, it’s not all memory. The physical evidence is irrefutable. Your present-time life and connections still exist, as surely as that little house in which you and Ned once lived and in which Chou-Chou resides now. The steep but not too high mountains, among the oldest ranges on the continent, still exist. This all exists as itself, present time, as does your past association with it, as does love and potentiality, and the future.
All side by side with each other. Along with this heavy sadness, which will not last anything like as long as the mountains.
You wish you could lay the sadness down. But too much experience with grief has taught you that the ability to do this is not within your conscious control.
You edge up to it, and what this sadness is, is grief.
But grief muted. The volume's turned down. Like Arkansas fall foliage in mid-November, this grief's colors are brown and dark gold, more subtle than the compulsive red, orange, yellow of earlier phases.
Still. Grief, in all phases, cannot be laid down or unfelt. Its essence is, it demands you feel it when and in the manner it wants to be felt.
But experience has also taught you that sometimes it — grief, sadness — falls away of its own accord.
Usually this falling away, when and if it occurs, happens in a startling moment. You are, unpredictably, taken out of yourself. You are, as C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "surprised by joy." As when obscuring heavy clouds roll away, and the sun, there all along, is suddenly revealed again.
On your way back, walking the familiar street, you glance out again over Dairy Hollow, and you discover that exactly this has happened.
Though it's only perhaps half an hour later, you are struck by how vast and blue the sky is now. Despite the muted trees; despite your gray mood, despite the earlier cloud cover.
And then you see a raptor, riding the thermals. It almost hangs there in the air.
And it happens. You are lifted from your sorrow by this sight, this one sight, the large black bird (probably, unpoetically, a turkey buzzard) against that bluest sky.
In the old days (why do we call those past days "old" when we were young then?), you would simply have stood there, as you are now, mouth half-open, watching and watching, allowing yourself to exult in the way the sun illuminates every pinion feather, the curves of each outstretched wing distinct. Allowing yourself to exult in your heart being lifted despite itself. Knowing life at this moment is granting you reprieve. Re-engaging you. Hooking you back into loving its sweet, complex, terrible, beautiful self.
As you would have known even when young, you have been given a gift.
But it is 2014. You are 61, almost 62 now, not 18. The world has changed; you have changed. You experiencing bird against sky purely, yet also have an I-Phone in your pocket.
You pull off your gloves and hand-warmers, bulky, awkward, warm clothing loaned to you by the friend who now lives in the small white house which used to be yours, and which you can see from where you stand.
In the old/young days, you weren't a picture-taker. What you were, among other things, was stubborn, and you stubbornly believed that to take a photograph took you out of the moment. That it was a trade-off: documentation for transcendenxce. You, smart arrogant pigheaded girl, believed you would and should always choose transcendence.
(That is why there are few pictures of you in your late teens and early twenties, and almost none of your many trips to India, perhaps the most lastingly signifigant journeys of your life. But here is one of the few; you, young you, with your then-young friend Chou-Chou, in 1983; the same woman who now, in 2014, lives across the hollow in the house in which you once lived).
But time, and technology — the I-Phone itself with its no-tech, no light-meters, uncomplicated necessary adjustments — has altered that.
As has twelve years of living with and learning from a documentary filmmaker — the one who committed suicide seven months ago. He was a brilliant photographer, and changed the way you view taking pictures. For him, it was an artistic and meditative act, one of the few practices, for awhile at least, that could lift the depression that afflicted the last four years of his life. That could take him out of his tortured self.
Until it no longer could, and finally nothing else could except the slip-knotted loop of white plastic clothesline rope he choose.
You take the I-Phone out and grasp it with your chilly fingers. You point it towards the sky, being carefully to frame the shot with a fringe of the mountain, and to wait until you think the raptor is in frame. Then you press the white circle on the screen which indicates that you have taken a picture by making a clicking sound.
You take several. You can’t see whether or not you have captured the bird, because the camera makes things much smaller, of course. Also, you don’t have your reading glasses. (You were just going on a walk, for fitness and to lift your blues; why would you have your reading glasses? You weren’t counting on this moment. You weren’t counting on taking any pictures. You weren't counting on the raptor.)
But you figure if you’ve captured it, even as a speck, perhaps you can edit the picture, another task that is now so technologically effortless and unintimidating even non-technological you can do it with ease.
Picture taken, you shove the I-Phone back in your pocket, struggle your very cold fingers back into the thick gloves, walk the short distance back.
But. How different is your mood now!
You marvel at the shift, the rapidity with which it took place. You contemplate this gift.
You think — being someone who is in constant conversation with herself, someone who could perhaps be said to be over-analytical philosophically — “Yeah, but it’s not really a gift.”
This is not an original thought, but one you first heard articulated by your favorite poet, Wislawa Szymborska, in a poem which begins, "Noithing's a gift, it's all on loan."
You thought, when you first read this, and you think now, yes. And you walk back to where you are staying.
Back at your suite, you shrug off layers and feel, atop the mood lift, the animal pleasure of moving from cold to warm, your skin on your cheeks still lively, pinked with cold. You put on water for tea. As you wait for it to boil, you look at and edit the pictures you just took. You are still happy, still amazed to find yourself so.
In one picture, the raptor is visible.
When the tea is brewed, you sit.
You are active on Facebook, which a friend recently described to you with startling acuity as “a cocktail party for introverts.” You take that picture and post it, with the following words.
On a cold cold day, against a blue blue sky, a raptor wheels, high and far away, sunlight catching its wings as it caught the air currents.
And I, on Spring Street, just across from the Grotto Spring, looking up at the sky and out into the valley that is Dairy Hollow, caught it, as my own breath caught.
Winter is eating the last of fall. The colors, though there's still a little warm to them, are giving way as each thing – each season, each bird, each life, each day – gives way to the next which follows. So much beauty catches us, but we don't get to keep it. Ever.
But what a loan it is.
Later that night, you see that more than 50 people have “liked” this post and picture, and some have left generous comments.
You reread the post.
You think, “This is almost a poem.”
And, though you have surely written thousands of Facebook posts, you do something you have never done before: you copy this Facebook post and paste it into Word, and begin to reconfigure it into something more intentional and less offhand: a poem.
You are not at all sure this poem is any good — perhaps the original post was better? — but experience has taught you that this doesn’t matter.
And the absorption in doing this work again gives you lift-off, a second time, by taking you out of yourself. In a wholly different manner than that conferred on you by the grace of the glimpsed turkey buzzard itself. But the freedom of absorption in something beyond thought — that is the skein of breathing room and spaciousness that both the turkey vulture and writring the poem conferred on you.
Later, on another walk — this time up through the woods to the elegant old stone pile of a hotel that, by coincidence, bears the same name as you do — you think about the all this.
The purity of the original sighting.
Documenting it with the camera on the phone, which, unlike your early presuppositions, did not take you out of the moment but became part of it, perhaps even extending that transcendent sense. You contemplate the ease of a phone-camera today, decide that all the futzing around with F-stops and light-meters spinning dials and having to stay still and numerical decision-making that would, indeed, have taken you out of the moment.
You contemplate that great phonemenon, hated by many but unmitigatedly loved by you, of Facebook, a modality of communication, to you in effect the contemporary version of sitting around the campfire or water-hole, which would have been utterly incomprehensible a few years back.
You think about how Facebook has altered your life, allowing you, the world’s most outgoing introvert, to connect in a fundamental, substantive way with many actual friends, as well as people who have become friends, not just “Facebook friends.” And to interact, in a way that is comfortable and natural to you, that allows for two needs that had often, previously been in conflict in your life — the need for solitude, and the need for vibrant, substantive connection.
Facebook fills you with wonder.
The whole turn-around of the day fills you with wonder.
You ask yourself: so, did technology — the ease of the I-Phone camera, Facebook — alter the process?
You decide: I will write a blog post about this.
Because nothing, no piece of this, “this”, finally, being life itself, is wasted on the writer.
On a cold cold day,
in a blue blue sky,
a raptor wheels,
way up and high
sunlight caught its wings
each pinion glowing gold
it rode freeways, warm air:
I don’t know how it knows
yet recognize this thermal
knowledge to be old
a hanging check of movement, black
and still, held with purpose
and such strength,: yet ease and glide
effortless effort, a silhouette of will
I’m breathless at its ride
It’s almost dusk,
and winter’s eating fall
what color’s left to trees, though burnished still
is muted, almost bare.
Night follows day,
each now proceeds a next
each season, bird and life give way;
and if you say, “Not fair, I want to keep,”
you have misread the text.
It catches us, but we cannot catch it
we’re part; but on our own
The arrogance, to think all this a gift; it isn’t
But oh dear fellow earthbound friend,
how generous a loan.