I hope that my voice will provide you with a gateway into the forest.
Your response is welcomed.
“Writing in landscapes, landscapes write in you.”
– Joan Halifax, The Fruitful Darkness
Some Years ago, while visiting Nepal, I had the good fortune to listen to the words of a Nepalese Archeologist. We were standing in front of an excavation in Lumbini, said to be the birthplace of Buddha. There the mother of Buddha was said to have given birth while holding onto the Sal tree. As he continued to speak, he referenced several other trees in the story of Buddha, and then paused to make an aside:
“It makes you wonder, really, if this is not actually all about the trees.”
He laughed and continued his discourse, but the words stayed with me as softly spoken ideas sometimes do. I remembered the impact of trees in my life and the subtle flavor of places, of landscapes that have moved me. Today, I have given a certain credence to this sensation and have concluded that whether it is a lower brain response to a safe and healthy landscape, or a higher brain desire for beauty, trees do hold a significant place in my relation to earth.
The expression of such things is understandably elusive. All aspects of our interconectedness can seem a challenge, at times, to express. We recognize them in flashes in our consciousness and then turn away to resume what we believe to be the important work of our lives. I have often felt helpless to express such thoughts on the world I have witnessed, in North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Sometimes the human pain I saw, due to economic imbalances, or the compassionate sorrow that twisted my gut, when disrupted landscapes destroyed or displaced plants and animals, became unbearable.
I would try to speak of my experiences with friends and acquaintances, but such topics seem to slide away from peoples interest focus. Their eyes typically glaze and they make a perfunctory remark, returning to the issues they know, relegating your experience to some other world beyond their ken.
This apparent disinterest was a tipping point for me, one day. I identified with a world much larger than the one my associates knew. I also felt compassion, hope, and fear for that world. I began to wake in the night, while living in Africa, and tell myself fictional stories of people who saw and solved the worlds issues. I set aside two decades of filtered ramblings in a journal and opened up into poetry, fantasy, and science fiction. It was personal and it was private. It was also a healing place. This is what I hope to share in these pages.
Fallen Leaves, Fallen Trees
Words fall away from my mind in orange and yellow They litter the ground, leaving me silent The flavor of it sits in my mouth Bitter or sweet A nameless perfume rife with memory
I am at last Finally, That Tree Tall, still, I brace the landscape My leaves fallen about me as past glories to dissolve Food for saplings
I am that tree Shading the heads of pilgrims I stand as safe roost for eons of flocks Soundless, I shrug a shoulder Or fan my hands
I am post and lintel Cup, bowl, canoe I am fire hardened spear and arrow; slit for the stone Cradle, coffin, crucifix I take the hangman’s name in silence
I am that tree. Support for Maya in her birth throws Canopy for her son as he awoke Gathering place for the elders The sentinel in silence forgotten
Standing within the cycle eternal Fully aware and in silence I am falling, falling My essence dreams And wakes again
I sat upon my haunches in the early morning light. There was no need for me to be here. The boy knew full well his way and the way was short. No, it was not responsibility that drew me nigh, and not the boy I watched for. For a creature like myself, curiosity is the greatest flaw.
The lights came on in the small clapboard house and I stood leisurely, stretched, and trotted off to the nearby enclosing clump of trees. There, I lay down, chin resting on paws, so that I might watch unseen beneath the leafy boughs, which nearly brushed the ground. It was a fair day and eventually all the curtains were opened in the house, presumably to let the sunlight in. I knew the woman’s habits well and watched with a unsettling delight as she moved from room to room, ending up in the kitchen, moving deliberately, moving with an economy of effort, while keeping her carriage tall.
I tried to see her beauty, but was unsure of what I saw. Dain had loved her enough to risk everything he had been raised for, and I had most certainly loved Dain, my only friend. I wondered what the flavor or scent of this human woman had been to capture the heart of a Fey man, but Dain had never been ordinary, had he? Fey or not, he had bent every rule made; becoming friends with one such as I, had been only one of them.
Culley left at his appointed hour, carrying a lunch and shifting a rucksack over one shoulder as he turned to wave to his mother. I held still as a stalled breeze, as he passed, but Culley spoke “Good Morning Todd” softly with a smile, while seeming to look straight ahead. I smiled back, my red tongue escaping for a moment. I found it easy to be myself around him. The boy was defiantly Dain’s child in so many ways. I had met Dain at about this age. He was the first child of any kind I had met, my adoptive mother having rightly judged my safety to outweigh social interaction.
Mora was already old when she found me, late in the night, mewling and whimpering in the back of a blood soaked den. Herself a victim of Fey power maneuvers, she guessed my plight and hid me away until she deemed it safe. Neither she nor I have ever gleaned the truth, even Dain’s endeavors in the lofty world of his family led to nothing. My mother was killed by an arrow; the other kits were easily dispatched with something blunter. I have no strong memory of it, only a time of terror and hunger ended in Mora’s arms. She gave me food and a bed and in the morning left to bury my family. I did not see the arrow she had preserved until I was 16 and she told my story to both me and Dain.
My kind have no name, I have met no other like me, nor had Mora. The word “Todd” simply describes “fox”, which Mora called me in the years before my first transformation at age 4 or 5. My bipedal form holds no name, nor do the other forms I may possess but which have not yet arisen for me. I still live with Mora, but since Dain’s passing I trust no other. I am now well known for my skills in parlay, I am held in trust by the highest in that land, but that trust is not returned, for I must believe one of them ended my family. I watch their eyes and I wait.
Today is a different sort of inquiry. I give Ella another hour before I rise to announce myself. Trousers and shirt are stored in the feed cupboard by the chicken coop, by previous agreement. The hens have grown used to me, which I find irritating. One day I may reeducate them about this fox. I smack my jaws wetly, snuff the air, and fantasize choosing the brown one. Strange to raise them only for eggs: a waste. The clothing is soft; the trouser seams are bound down on the inside, so they will not rub. She chose this for me when I tried to wear Dain’s hard blue pants the other way out: its seams were unbearable! Ella says I am wearing clothing made to sleep in. I asked her why anyone would sleep in clothing and caused her to blush. I am as rough and graceless as a stable boy in this world, at times. We have both learned to laugh at our shared ignorance. Laughter heals, a truly universal magic.
I press the button, which rings a bell. I delight in such things, still appalled at the easy magic these creatures have mastered.
“Todd!” Is she pleased, surprised, or unhappy? I cannot decide. “Come in. I was planning to work today. Would you like to have tea in my studio?”
“I have always wondered about the art you make, Ella. Thank you”, sometimes I am too blunt, but she seems unfazed by my expressed interest, which I judged to be remarkably rude as it left my mouth. Her smile seems genuine. I pretend I am Dain for an instant, to understand what called him to her. Immediately I falter, it seems too offensive. I am ashamed and silently ask Dain’s forgiveness before entering. I have no shoes to shed at the door, but I wipe my feet and she waves me into her inner sanctum.
“Go ahead and look around, I will fetch the tea things.”
I cannot even respond. It is by far the largest room in the house, with the roof as high as the second story. It appears to have been built on at a later time. The windows are notably different; large and unframed. Daylight sparkles across the room and brilliantly lights the paintings, and other stranger things hung on every wall. Canvass and oil I understand, but natural wood melded with glass or metal to create lifelike forms, is beyond me. She finds me slumped in a padded chair, my head back, my mouth open, as if I had been tippling.
“I had no idea. Dain never said. Is it done with magic?”
She placed the tea and food on the table while trying to control her face. She did not want to laugh at me.
“Your complements are far too much for my simple work. I thank you,” was her controlled answer.
She sounded so diplomatic and proper that I burst out laughing myself and she joined in. “Truly, I have never seen art of such shocking beauty and intriguing concept. Perhaps I sound like a fool in your world, but I am not given to flattery. Have you noticed?” I ended with this, in an attempt to disarm her and return to some sort of more natural conversation. It worked, but I was still over awed by the plethora of creation around me. We poured tea and I asked her to take me piece by piece through her work. It took over two hours. It was marvelous.
At last we sat, the teapot empty, and I had no more contrivances that might allow me to linger. The day was passing and I could feel her desire to return to the work that was her livelihood.
“Thank you Ella,” I spoke simply as this was all I had. Her responding smile was radiant. I could hardly look at her. She cast no glamors; that I might have fought. It was in her pure unsullied honesty that I might drown. In horror I knew this is what it had been.
Eventually I set aside what I am reading and write. It is best, or so it seems to me, to arrive at writing from a place of stillness. There is depth in such writing. I recognize the depth because I have the sense of someone else there doing the work; it arises and sets itself on the page, then I show up and do some useful editing. This is ordinary magic, there is no effort to do anything.
The following bit is the start of a fairy tale. There seems to be a fairy tale need in me these days. I have been re-reading Joan Aiken and she has that effect on me. This is only the start of one, so be patient with me please. It has been a while in the making.
Look a Little Deeper
So, I knew this man once, who came home looking for his lover, but she had run off.
Run off with the butcher’s wife? No, no, just… off somewhere. She had something to do. When he left that morning she had been looking for her shoes, so he had had a hint.
It wasn’t that he was worried. They had always, so far, been good lovers: sweet and constant. He wasn’t worried that she wouldn’t come back. It was more about who would she be when she did get back? She had the tendency to be, well, perhaps a little extreme, sometimes. Once she had come home with a saxophone and a saxophone teacher. The three of them had lived together in the same bed for 4 months. The saxophone teacher was very nice, if a little young, and she made very good eggs at breakfast. But then, he had never liked saxophone very much and it really was a very small bed.
So, he was actually, just a little worried and slightly curious about what happens next, (aren’t you?)
She had first arrived one evening as he sat outside his flat. It was summer and hot; he turned off everything and opened everything and sat outside in the semi-dark drinking beer. She was selling flowers, or at least that is what he decided. She knelt before him in a brown gathered skirt and a white men’s shirt rolled up at the sleeves and tied at the waist. She looked into his eyes and smiling happened. He was taken in that moment. For all his life after, he thought of that twilight moment as the hinge of everything: of all happiness and certainty.
She pulled a cloth from her pack and spread it at his feet in the dust of the walkway. She did it with the flourish and poise of an entertainer, every once and a moment catching his eye.
On it, laid out in a single motion, were flowers made of everything; of wire and paper, bits of metal and plastic used with incredible delicacy; puckered, bent, crimped into authentic flowerhood. He stared at them, feeling his mouth fall slightly open. She tilted her head as if to ask what he thought. He bought everything she had, with everything he had; 17 pounds, 22pence. He offered her a beer and she stayed; to his everlasting amazement and curiosity.
Gary was one of three Gary’s in his class at school. It was a popular name that year. It was the only thing that was popular about him. He was a quiet boy who did what he was told with good will. It was for that reason that his teachers never remembered him, and his parents seldom did. He was not a squeaky wheel and if he earned any attention it was usually a sigh of relief, that at least one child in the bunch was not causing trouble.
Gary decided at some point in his education that what he wanted was to be a success. He was not sure how this was accomplished, but he determined from the subtle comments of his betters that it was by diligence alone. Therefore, rather than go on to school, at 18, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and make the family farm a great success. He approached this with abundant industry, the afore mentioned diligence, and, his father’s somewhat skeptical blessings. He was the eldest child, after all, and the only son, so it stood to reason, and his father was not a man to stand in the way of hard work. It was on the day after Gary cut the tips from three fingers of his right (and dominate) hand on what might be considered ‘complicated farm machinery’ that his father took a different view. Gary came into his mother’s kitchen, bleeding extravagantly, but quietly. Jeannie who came weekly to help around the house, and who was one but not the other, made up for any silence with memorable expletives and a full length passing out in the doorway. His mother treated him with a constant headshake. After his hand was wrapped, his father stood and looked at him thoughtfully, fists shoved into his pockets, mouth pursed and his headshake at the same cadence as his mothers. Gary remembered thinking that his mother and father had lived together a very long time. His father’s head abruptly stopped its wag and his lips un-pursed. He looked into Gary’s eyes and said “So. Son. What is it you think your calling might be?”
Gary went away to school.
By the time he met her, there remained only a strange bevel to the tops of the last three fingers of his right hand. She said her name was Jezz, after Jezebel. She said her mother liked the Bible.
Gary was shocked and incredulous. “But why name you after that story?” he asked.
Jezz smiled sideways at him. “I said she liked the bible, I didn’t say she’d read it. I think she picked names from it at random to name her children, and her dogs for that matter. You need to meet my brother Judas.”
Gary winced, but said nothing and Jezz smiled widely.
“He calls himself Jude and tells people his mother liked the Beatles song. I think she did, too.”
On the first sunny day after they met, they laid a blanket in a field just out of town and made love in the sunlight. This was a first for Gary, and although it was Sunday and there was little chance of being interrupted by the farmer, Gary felt somehow wicked, but not bad, not bad at all. After, they ate the lunch they had brought. Gary pulled his jeans on right away, but Jezz seemed to not think of it at all.
For Gary, Sunday had been his day of rest, or at least change, which they told him, was as good as any rest might be. As a child, he attended church with his mother, after chores and any schoolwork. It was something that he continued to do into his teens, long after his two sisters had found reasons to avoid it.
The Reverend Thornhurst was loud and fiery. Gary may have gone for the simple contrast his sermons made to a quiet home life. Shortly after Gary was born, the Reverend had arrived in their parish. He was a practical and earnest man, married to a mildly pretty woman of good family. She left him in under two years, to much local speculation. The Reverend never spoke of it, but his sermons took on a touch of frenzy (and occasionally spittle, for those in the front pew). Over the years, the many, many wicked women of the Bible were outlined in detail. Even the Virgin Mary was given a careful going over in the Christmas season. Somehow Gary associated women and Sunday. It was good to find it was something sweet and wholesome after all, just as his heart had always hinted.
Gary and Jezz stayed for some time in the field, enjoying the sunshine. Gary on his stomach watching the slow progress of life in the grass, turned to look at her. His Jezz; sitting naked and unconcerned in the sun, braiding grass stems with deft art. The look of concentration that had gentled her face, gripped him somehow. His throat grew tight and he smiled, thinking he should read the story of Jezebel sometime and see what he thought of her now.
(This is a continuation of the earlier story: ‘What May Enter Here’.)
He dropped by the first time like a new neighbor: casual, carefully neutral, vaguely friendly. A painfully bright red on the landscape, which approached my back door, then sat on his haunches waiting, toenails just barely skirting the edge of my threshold. We contemplated each other for a moment with equal curiosity. He tilted his head in foxy interrogative, then he stood in a flourish of transformation. Now a naked, tall man with painfully red hair in just a few places, I blinked several times before tossing him the tea towel I had dried my hands on. He held it loosely before him and tilted his head again.
“Come in, shut the door.” I called over my shoulder on the way to accumulate some clothing. The click sounded behind me, nothing more. If I had not been expecting him it would have been distinctly off setting. As it was, I was already sweating and wiping my face as I walked with what I hope sounded to be authority, in my own home. I returned shortly with pants and shirt from Dain’s closet. I had not touched it in 4 years, I took a breath, let it go and set them on the kitchen island between us. Todd, for it could only be Todd, whom I had called, put them on clumsily. “They suit you well. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please. Have you honey?”
He smiled now in a dazzle and I reminded myself that he was fey to the core and not to let this influence my mood of resolution. He was adroit and seeing my resistance toned it down a bit. I liked him for that and returned a curt nod.
“Honey it is. Please take a seat in the front room and I will join you.”
I brought in a tray to set a formal mood. I wished I could appear formidable, but knew my stature for what it was: tiny. The tray held scones, cream and jam to balance the teapot. It looked bountiful. It was a small tray. Todd’s proud carriage and dexterous, self-possessed movements were worth watching. He was a spokesman of redoubtable presence, and some fame in his own place. I knew that when I named him. Dain spoke always of him as a friend. That gave me courage and a snippet of hope. I sat a little straighter with my cup resting on its saucer quietly. This was no time for nerves. Finally, he set down the cup and I followed suit.
“You wish to Parley?”
“I do.” The following silence made me tighten.
“Is Culley here?”
“He is at the neighbors; she asked him to bake tarts. He loves sweets.” Nothing had been said and already I felt myself losing ground. My shoulders were dropping with my heart. The fox smiled again; not so many teeth this time.
“Why did you call me, may I ask?”
“Dain named you as friend many times.” I glanced down feeling too weak for this, too powerless.
“Your power lies in your love.” He spoke quietly, reading me easily. I flushed and tears rose, to my shame. “Dain was won over by that very power. Rest in it.”
I looked up at him, ginger halo caught by the sun from the window. He was watching me, but what I had anticipated as calculation had melted from his face.
“I have no idea where to begin. I only fear to lose him. To lose him, too.” Something moved in the creature’s face, something I would have known as compassion in a human, but my mind strove against it. We are such pathetic beings; tortured by our ignorance and defined by our arrogance. I held a flicker of hope then and carelessly brushed it aside. He laughed at me. I saw it and was consumed by my shame.
Contemplating my ruddy flush he spoke again, this time more gently, as if to a child. “I will not seek to manipulate you, but I am sworn to my duty. You called, I was asked, and I accepted. This is all outside of any friendship I have ever held. If it is not, it is meaningless.” He waited for my acknowledgement. I sat straighter and turned up my eyes to him.
“I asked for you because I hoped you would honor us all. All concerned here held Dain in our hearts.” For this I received a whisper of a smile. “I called for you with the understanding that the outcome would be binding. I am frightened, not perfidious.” This time I let go of an edge of my fear and smiled back at him. He somehow emitted radiance that out played the afternoon sun. Hope wormed its way back into my heart and we began to talk in earnest: to plan, barter and plead our cases.
When evening fell and Culley returned with a plate of warm tarts to show me, he looked around expectantly.
“He was here!”
“Have you agreed?”
Ah, the simplicity of childhood; love them because I do. All will be well!
“We have. You will live with me, just as you would at regular school. Lessons begin after the summer.”
“Are you happy?” Culley’s candor was always foremost. I hoped it always would be. I smiled easily at him.
As a child, trees in our vicinity were a particular draw. It was not a exceptionally wooded landscape. There was the feeling of cultivated lands slowly being returned to their original inclinations: verdant. I would wander as far from the house as I was allowed and stand among young acacias. Their smooth grey trunks and yellow springtime fluff gave off a feeling that I cannot express even today. Their trunks were about 5 inches in diameter, I believe, and they would sway in the breeze, creating a small gap at their base as they shifted back and forth. I was small, they were tall. We had a relationship.
There were other trees I grew to know over time, but these were my first loves. I do realize I was an odd child; lonely, small, hungry and silent. Odd has turned out to not be such a bad thing. Apparently there are also the odd moments of grace in life that hardly make sense in the world of ordinary concepts.
The following story speaks for itself. As an aside, the name ‘Culley’ is Gaelic in origin, meaning ‘the woods’.
What May Enter Here
Culley had been standing in the grove for some time now, standing still. His mother could see him from the back door of the house, the land rising gradually from there and cresting with the stand of acacia trees just coming into bloom. She paused her process of baking bread every so often to check and see if he had moved. Her wristwatch had stopped yesterday and she had left it on the counter of her bathroom this morning. She made a snorting sound of frustration as she automatically checked her naked wrist one more time.
Culley’s mother slid the two loaves into the oven, checked the time on the clock in the other room, and pulled on her sweater and wellies. She tried hard not to run or to slip on the still damp spring grass. When she had nearly reached the grove, she approached more slowly: moving a step or two and then pausing to watch her child, who was far too fey for his own good. At last she came to stand by him, nearly brushing against his shoulder, carefully watching, still. At last he looked up with a sunny smile.
“Hello, my child. What are you doing?” her words as softly spoken as she could make them.
“I’m talking to the trees, Mama.”
Culley’s mother unconsciously pressed her fist up to her mouth, a look of anxiety walking shamelessly across her face. Culley had turned back to the trees, rapt.
“Do they answer you, my sweet boy?”
“Yes, but they are very slow.” He did not look away from the grove as he spoke. Culley’s mother pressed her fist against her head this time. A movement, caught in the corner of her eye, caused her to jerk her head in that direction. Her son cast her another smiling look, as if waiting to share her excited recognition of something. This time she schooled her face to stillness. Culley turned back to the grove.
“You’ve been here for a long time. It’s time for you to come home and help with dinner.”
“OK, mama!” He seemed completely unperturbed, and his mother slid her hand into his and turned him toward home. Another movement beneath the trees turned her still face to stone and she deliberately turned her back to it. At the kitchen door, Culley pulled back and let his mother remove her boots before helping him pull his off as well. She stepped inside, then turned to see him pause on the doormat. A shadow of something passed behind his feet. She looked at him as sternly as she was able, an effort on any day.
“You know the rules, young man!”
“Yes Mama,” he spoke solemnly, “house things in the house, garden things in the garden, and wild things where they belong.”
“Very good, now make sure that’s true before you step over our threshold.” She emphasized the ‘our’ only a little and not for his sake, but for the sake those who might need reminding.
Dinner was constructed from steps; meat cut into cubes and seared, onions browned, root vegetables peeled and chopped. Culley was remarkably skillful with a knife, but she had been forced to purchase the new ceramic ones. He cried when she used the steel ones and refused to touch them himself. She had donated them to a surprised neighbor; saying ceramic was safer for children. She took the bread from the oven just in time, by smell. It seemed she had forgotten to wind up the clock in the sitting room. As the bread cooled on a wooden rack, she sent Culley into the dinning room to draw while the stew cooked.
Twilight was falling and Culley’s mother opened the back door again, stepping out of her hot kitchen, this time without her sweater. She gazed up the hill with a silent stillness her son would have understood. A late honeybee lit on her flowered blouse, near the elbow. She turned her attention to it. There was nothing to fear in bees, they meant you no harm. Bees were conscientious and diligent, sometimes a bit pompous, but never unkind. If you had something that needed telling, they were here to listen with polite concern.
“I don’t need to talk about him today, thank you. It’s his son I worry for. I don’t think you can help me there.” She smiled with a touch of sad chagrin. The bee hummed for a moment longer on her arm and took flight to a home where his yellow dust was a badge of courageous enterprise. She thought of the budding acacia and wondered just how much the bees had seen.
Dinner did not begin until full dark had fallen. This was not due to a plan of any sort; it was the tenderness of potatoes for the most part, that dictated the time. When Culley had eaten his last bite, he set the spoon to the side with authority; a small clink that gave his mother warning. She waited, toying with the last bit of her bread.
“Mama, will I go to school next year?”
“I think you will be old enough.”
“Papa’s family say I should come to them for school.”
“Do they now.” Her tone was flat, her face resolved to this bitter news. “When did you begin to talk with them?”
“After the trees. They are all friends.”
“They say that Papa would have wanted me to learn from them. I know you don’t like them.”
At this she looked up at her son’s face in surprise. “Not true. Your father was one of them and I have never stopped loving him.”
Culley tilted his small head like a bird listening for something. “Then why have you closed our door to them?”
His mother nodded in acceptance. This was a conversation she knew would someday arrive. Very softly she said, “Their interference was what led to his death.”
“But they did not mean to, they told me that they miss him too.”
“I have no doubt they miss him, but he was mine and they had no right here.”
An uncommon look of concern took up residence in her son’s face. With a deep sigh she straitened her shoulders and spoke. “Let the red fox come, the one they hail as Tod, and we will parley.”
With such a solemn demeanor did her son bow his agreement, for all the world as might the lord of the hall agreeing on terms. She felt the gurgle of a laugh even through her sadness, which she immediately suppressed. Both here and in that other place he might be, one day, lord indeed. She must play her part as well, and unflinchingly, if she were to protect her child from the harsh and loving ministrations of a world beyond her ken.
Meandering. Stillness and silence lead me, waiting for something to open. During mediation all sorts of things open into my mind, then float away leaving me with a sense of insights having passed through me and moved on.
Much interconnectedness, for me, is the arising of serendipity within my experiences. Not mere accidents, to my mind, but a clarity of thought that culminates in allowing me to see more precisely how the world relates, one item to another and another, guiding me to a larger perspective. Among the books I am presently reading (and re-reading) is “The Dream of the Earth” by Thomas Berry. He charmingly dedicates this book “To the Great Red Oak, beneath whose sheltering branches this book was written”.
In his introduction, he begins with:
“One of the most remarkable achievements of the twentieth century is our ability to tell the story of the universe from empirical observation and with amazing insight into the sequence of transformations that has brought into being the earth, the living world, and the human community.”
I must acknowledge that all understanding is developed from empirical observation. From there I am forced to consider how crude our human instruments for observation still are, for all our microscopes, our scanning and calculating power, we still spend much of our time uncertain of what we observe and how to interpret it. Mr. Berry looks deeply into history, the wisdoms found in myth and ancient traditions, as well as the constant dawning of understanding from scientific exploration. From this broad view he asks: what is our responsibility to the earth?
Thomas Berry describes our relationship with earth as having phases similar to those Joseph Campbell describes in his ‘Hero’s Journey’. Humanity must let go of their childhood and move toward their own coming of age, in responsibility for the planet.
Of course this is indeed a very broad view, one that demands knowledge and understanding well beyond my own. It moves me, I can see the sense in it, the understanding that he conveys, but it leaves me trembling in my own smallness; the tiny thing that hides in the grass. So, I make my great strides with the use of small words; some borrowed, some my own, but only words. Understanding the things that cannot truly be spoken of with the use of words? Yes. How silly.
Virginia Woolf attempts it in this passage from “Time Passes” in “To the Lighthouse”:
“Then indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from the sea to the shore. Never to break its sleep any more, to lull it rather more deeply to rest, and whatever the dreamers dreamt holily, dreamt wisely, to confirm—what else was it murmuring—as Lily Briscoe laid her head on the pillow in the clean still room and heard the sea. Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said—but what mattered if the meaning were plain?”
According to Ursla Le Guin (lovely Oregonian author of Science fiction and so much more, recently lost to us), when discussing the style of this piece, Woolf is quoted in a letter to a friend:
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”
Virginia Woolf in: Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (p. 32). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Words may flicker through you and convey ‘the voice of the beauty of the world’. Ordinary magic, but magic, to be sure.
What do you see here? This was a remarkable happening, caught on camera at the end of a hike last summer. I still feel a Kaleidoscope of emotions when I look at this scene of beauty and sorrow. I feel conflicting things: a beautiful flower, a beautiful spider, duplicity, fear, death, dinner, survival.
I am not so simple as to think that any word I share here will change this world; result of limitless causes. Still, I imagine that a change of perspective results in a change of intention. My intention has no more power than of a puff of breath into the gale, yet it remains one of the causes. I long to read words that bring me greater clarity, greater depth, and hope. I long to share such words. That is all.
Here is a story that surprised me when it arrived. No magic really, other than that magic which causes us to change.
The Gaucho’s Grandson
Falling upon my eye, I took in each thing in turn, as if they were simply flashes on a movie screen, and had nothing to do with me; the grain of the table wood, a smooth hard river stone, the gleaming bronze foot of the Quan Yin statue on the counter. The mind is a funny thing. At times it lays the world before you like the cards in a deck, in other times it plays the game without consulting you at all. I cannot say that I had been angry to start with, that was all behind me, years behind me. My cousin and I sat together in my Aunts house and listened to the respirator keep time. The table separated us, with its beautiful eye-catching oak grain, and that was good. I am sure it was that, that held me safely in my chair so long, as the deadly stillness wandered through me.
My Aunt Rosa had asked to be moved to the guest room so she could watch the garden. By that, she meant watch the birds flit, branches sway, and the sun move slowly over her plants. She and I had sat together in that summer garden over the last three months as illness slowly took her strength. We had laughed and sipped tea and told stories that each of us had heard before, and a few that neither of us had ever shared. Now the garden was reaching its end; grasses turning from green to tan, roses dropping their petals a few at a time with no one to deadhead them. Sitting there in the hot shade, she had told me of how my uncle had brought her home a puppy from his travels. I knew that story; I had known that puppy as a grown dog, when I was small. Then she told me how my uncle had left her for another woman, a neighbor, a friend even. That part of the story was new. He took only his clothes and his truck and left her with a child of two years and a nearly empty bank account. When he came back, six months later, he had the puppy. Her neighbor she never saw. Aunt Rosa loved that dog. I was surprised that she told me, but I guessed that the process of dying makes some secrets not such a big deal any more.
I never really knew Uncle Jim. He died in a construction accident when I was twelve and my cousin Tomas was eight. We lived in another state: my parents and my two older sisters. Sometimes Aunt Rosa and Tomas would drive out all the way to meet us for camping in the summer, just a week or two, but Uncle Jim always stayed at home to work. I don’t remember much about Tomas then. He was a little boy and sort of shy. Sitting across from him, I thought maybe he had been sort of sneaky, but it is hard to know the truth. When I was in High School, I spent a summer with them. Aunt Rosa owned a café by then, and she let me wait on customers from behind the soda fountain the year I turned 16. She thought I was too young to wait table. Somehow the counter was meant to keep me safe from rough men? I didn’t know. I was saving for a car and was thrilled to be away from home, nearly on my own, for the first time. I felt so grown up. One day I saw Tomas come in, tall and thin for his age, just 12, he slid behind the counter and opened the till. He didn’t look up at me as he took out the stack of 5’s. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything either. Aunt Rosa saw him as she came out from the kitchen and made him put it back. She scolded him very quietly and he hung his head. Then, she took some money back out of the till and gave it to him, just gave it to him. I can see the whole thing now; the sun coming through gingham curtains, a few people who were having late lunch sitting in the booths, a dead fly on the window sill that I would have to take care of after closing. Aunt Rosa wore a flower dress and white apron; a dark curl of hair was falling loose from its pin as she bent to talk to Tomas. Strange, how images can seem so bright at times.
It wasn’t just that, though, which made me think he was sort of spoiled. She never made him do even little things, like clear the table or take out the trash; things I had done all my life. It was like she was afraid he would not feel her love if she ever asked him for anything. She was a lot stricter with me. She taught me how to work with the same hard driven work ethic that had made her a success at everything she did. I took those skills to college too. It made a difference, I feel sure of it. I don’t know why she didn’t give those things to Tomas. Did she think he would leave her, if she asked too much? I haven’t got a clue, but I remember being kind of pissed at him. I thought “What a dork, he doesn’t even know what he’s got!” We’re both in our 40’s now. I stopped thinking about him a long time ago.
Tomas arrived last night in his big rig. He drives cross-country out of the San Francisco Bay Area, but seldom stops here. Aunt Rosa had not seen him in two years. She told him she was sick, but asked for nothing. He gave her just that. I called him last week after the hospice nurse told me it was time to let people know. Tomas seemed edgy. Aunt Rosa smiled like sunshine had lit her from within, when she saw him. Tomas, whose friends had slipped a weeks tips out of my purse while he stood in the kitchen and smiled and told me about how they had been swimming in the river all day. Tomas, who got picked up with his buddies for underage drinking and lighting an old barn on fire that same night.
Now we sat across the table from one another, Tomas and I in the late afternoon sun. I watched him with an eerie detachment and now and then I would picture him going through her dresser again and a dark fog would pass through me, blown by a rush of hot red rage. I had never felt anger like that before. It almost felt beautiful. Such a strange thought, but true. The rush would lift me and I would no longer feel the heavy sorrow that had become the flavor of everyday, waiting for the end, for Aunt Rosa’s end. I felt strange and powerful and unable to think. Another gust and I slipped out the screen door to the pile of black river rocks; ornamental rocks that made a false streambed in the garden. One of them was in my hand though I never felt myself bend or grasp it. I looked back at Tomas but could only see black. Then it passed and I went back in, feeling a little sick. I took the stone with me though. I set it on the table and Tomas looked at it unwavering and grim.
I don’t know if Tomas could feel my anger. He never let on. I am not sure what he thought at all. Even now I find it hard to believe he was Aunt Rosa’s child. Aunt Rosa who befriended a Buddhist monk on her trip home to Guatemala ten years ago. That was a funny story. He told her that Buddhist monks had come to Guatemala long before Europeans arrived; that there were written records of it in Tibet. She was so impressed with him; I didn’t want to tell her that he was crazy. They really liked each other and I thought more of him later, when she showed me the letters he had written. Letters so respectful and philosophical, I wondered what they had said to each other on that journey. I think he understood who she was. One day a package came from Tibet with that beautiful bronze statue of Quan Yin that sits on the counter; the goddess of compassion. Yes, he actually did get who she was.
I surprised Tomas while he was going through Aunt Rosa’s dresser after dinner. I was quiet, so quiet these last few weeks, that it had become a habit. I didn’t set out to catch anyone. I was just standing in the hall in that blank silence that was becoming familiar to me. I noticed that he was in her room and woke up. When I went in, he was pulling out the cardboard box where Auntie stored Papa’s silver. Our grandfather would ride in local parades, proudly decked in silver spurs and belt buckle, silver trim on his saddle and harness. He was an old style gaucho with a big hat and skin burned hard by the sun. I slammed the drawer back with such fury. It was a wonder I hadn’t caught his fingers in it too. Tomas looked at me hard and then just walked away. We were rock and ice. I saw no reason to put up with him, none at all.
In the morning I could tell that Rosa was weaker. My sweet aunt, so full of love, was fading away from me. Tomas didn’t speak to me. He sat on the porch where she could not see him from her window. He sat with his feet up and an open beer balanced on the rail. He didn’t touch it, only the flies did. When she asked for him, I went and told him. He came in and sat with her for about an hour, then he came out and sat across the table from me in silence.
I didn’t pick up the rock again. The light reflecting from Quan Yin’s bronze foot was glaring in the corner of my eye. I turned to her and saw the glints from surfaces touched by so many hands and so many years. She had been in some temple long before my aunt met her; given flowers and incense and reverently touched and polished by hands that begged for her help, for her mercy. I had thought about the places she was touched, those that shown the brightest; her foot reaching out to come to those in need and the vessel at her side which contains the elixir of life. Aunt Rosa told me all about her. Aunt Rosa!
Something changed then. I can hardly describe it. One moment black outrage owned me and then in the next, absolutely nothing was important anymore; nothing but the fact I had loved that dear woman, the fact I had known her at all. I went and got Papa’s silver and put it on the table between us.
“Why do you want it?” I asked. “It’s mine!” his face contorted with the words.
“It belongs to Rosa.” I answered softly.
“Papa…Papa always wanted me to ride with him, but I thought it was stupid. I was an idiot.” His eyes looked bright and he looked away from me. I can’t explain it; my heart swelled. My heart broke, it broke right open. The tears that refused to fall all these weeks, fell like rain. I didn’t even know it had happened. They were just suddenly on the table before me, sitting in little splashes on the oak grain. I drew my sleeve across my eyes and looked at the wetness.
“It’s already yours. She left it all to you, and the house.”
He looked up at me, surprised. “She should have left the house to you.”
I lifted a shoulder; “I don’t want it, if she isn’t here it’s empty.”
He looked at me then, probably for the first time ever. “You’re right there.”
We sat in silence for a little while longer, and then I said, “Let’s go back in.” Tomas continued to look at me for a moment, and then he barely nodded, straightened his shoulders and stood, waiting to follow me home.