Death in two parts

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I. Death is an empty place

 

The heart dies first, emptying slowly until its fragile shell sits silently in your chest. The lungs resist, hungry as wolves in winter, biting after the air, until they starve, buried in the noiseless snow.

 

The ragged-edged knife of sorrow scrapes the bones clean. Despair burns the bones to ash, washed away by what tears are left. The rest follows until you are hollowed out, your body weightless, floating through the world, tethered against your will.

 

The dreams are the last to go.

 

Only the echo of your voice remains. Your family, friends, and acquaintances fail to mourn you. They cannot tell the living from the dead.

 

But you know.

 

Death is an empty place.

 

 

 

II. Rising from the dead is harder than it looks

 

In death you grow fond of silence. You rest in the stillness, free from pain or want.

 

If you could only close your eyes forever, you could remain in that emptiness. But the world lies in wait. A leaf splattered with red and green falls and when you stoop to touch it, the sun’s fire scorches your hand. Longing with its pain enters you, furtively like a thief. The moon waits for you behind a hedge of cloud, reaches out and holds you like an old lover. Its soft light cleaves the darkness. In the distance, you see hope and turn away. Too late. One by one memories trudge back, dragging promises to fill the empty room.

 

The lungs resist breathing again. You dread that old hunger, the desire for air that can never be satisfied. Every breath seeks another and another.

 

Life abhors a vacuum; it forces its way back in. The daily meals, the work, the cleaning, the bills, the neighbors, the care of children, they all crowd into you, jostling for space, clumsy and needy. They crush that empty shell of a heart. You spend the rest of your life trying to put it back together again, looking for the pieces. It will never be the same. When your misshapen, patched-up heart finally beats again, you cry, because you know the heart is always the first to go.

 

 

It happened in August

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It happened in August. I knew better than to wade into the water, but I’m compulsive that way.

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The water seemed calm enough, barely a ripple on its surface. Maybe it was the shattered sunlight, winking and blinking like a thousand sequins, that drew me farther in. My feet followed the slope of the earth until I stood in chest-high water.

 

That’s when I saw the wave out on the horizon. I always think it is a small wave brought by some unseen current, a wave that will wash over me gently, but not pull me under.

 

So, I stood there and waited.

 

I should have known, and if I’m honest, I did know, but I have a chronic case of optimism that affects my vision. I’m so nearsighted that I cannot recognize reality until it’s right in front of me.

 

When it was too late to turn back, I saw what lay beneath that wave: the great whale. And it swallowed me, as it has done year after year.

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For four and a half months I traversed the ocean in the belly of that whale, my old companion. Then last week, he spit me out, worn and wasted, my eyes unused to the light. For two days I lay on the beach, asking myself if I would return to the beach or move inland.

 

Next time it will be different, I tell myself. Teaching will not swallow me whole; I will teach and have a life. Sitting by the fire here on the shore, watching the small waves roll in, I believe that.

 

Next time it will be different. In January I will return to the shore, believing, always believing.

 

I am called to the sea. I cannot stay away.

 

 

 Photos: Seashore   Whale

 

 

Our Sunday drive

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Sunday afternoon we drove up north to see some fall colors. The wizards of weather foresaw rain and gloom, but the wind tidied up the sky and swept the clouds into the corners so the sun could shine across the bright blue dome.

 

 

Crowds of slim birch trees dressed in their finest yellow drew close to the road and shyly waved as we drove by. Rosy-cheeked sumac crowded round their feet and drew even closer to watch the cars go by. The oaks, of course, wore their best: dappled patterns of green, yellow, orange, and red; swaths of color made iridescent by the light. Standing among the glory of the colors, the firs and pine trees kept to themselves, attending to their business of staying ever green.

 

 

Near the village of Wittenberg, we saw one deer, a young doe, crossing the road. We slowed the car, and she turned to look at us. When we drew closer, she turned and ran, her white tail waving goodbye.

 

 

Near Tigerton and again near New London, we crossed the Embarrass River with its intriguing name. It’s easy to imagine the naming as a kind of penance for some act of shame or humiliation by Wisconsin’s early settlers, but it’s merely French for obstruction. Before any other Europeans arrived here, the French canoed their way through the state rivers looking for a route to China. They were as successful as we were as children, digging holes, thinking we could tunnel through the earth and crawl out in Shanghai. Trees lining this tributary of the Wolf River fell into the water, clogging the passage of the French, so they named it for its obstruction.

 

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Our drive led us past red-barned fields, each marked by one or more silo like silent sentinels guarding the farms. Acres of corn crowded the land, each stalk wearing a feathered cap in anticipation of the harvest.

 

 

We spoke little on our drive; our hearts were too full. Fall crushes us with its beauty and heals us in turn. Beauty is the heart-balm that creates a longing for home and then invites us in, and each time the earth turns, splashing my eyes with its color, I cannot get enough of it.

 

 

Yesterday a wind blew

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Yesterday a wind blew – a wind without urgency, a wind that held me in its arms, a wind of promise. I recognized that wind from the dreams I have had since childhood. So many nights I have heard its call to fly and have soared across the skies of dreamland.

 

 

The wind yesterday waited outside my door. And as I walked, it called me to the sky. I raised my arms, just as I do in my dreams, almost believing that the wind would lift me up and carry me. And when my feet held firm, stayed in the world’s grip, I pretended to stretch. I have been taught to keep my dreams to myself, yet I raised my arms more than once, as much a gesture of love to the world and sky as a hope that I could fly.

 

 

A gauze of clouds rimmed the sky, diffusing the sun’s light. I walked further than I normally do, immersed in that cool, soft wind that gave and took my breath away.

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Later in the morning I saw the geese flying, carried by the same promise, arrowing across the sky to places I cannot go. I trembled at their loveliness and listened to their calls, a language strange and yet familiar. I watched them, and my heart stirred with a longing for a place I cannot name but want to call home.

 

 

What wonder is this that I could see the sky so blue, filled with geese, their cries filling the moment like a cup, brimful with joy, prepared just for me.

 

 

 

 

Photo on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/37804979@N00

The land of giants

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When I was small I lived in the land of giants. People and building loomed large, towering over me in a world that pulsed with power and strength. In my first eight years when the year changed, I sat on my grandparents’ porch, coated and mittened, to watch the New Year’s parade march down the broad street. The porch stretched half a block in length surrounded by concrete walls I first had to tiptoe over to see the marchers.

 

When my years grew large, my grandparents’ home grew small, their porch unable to hold more than a few chairs, a table, a bench, and two or three small children.

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I knew a man once who slept in my mother’s bed, a man not my father but who owned her when he changed her name. He walked in fierceness, his words the mace he swung to shame and mock and ridicule. He slew me more than once. Though I had more than a decade to stand on, he towered over me, an insurmountable wall that kept me in a place of fear. I hated him.

 

A full generation passed before I saw him again. This past week we met. The years have left him frail, thin, and sick. His legs hesitate when he tries to walk, and his ears fail to listen to the soft voices around him. Old angers still smolder in his words, but the flame no longer leaps out to scorch and singe.

 

All of us come to rubble eventually. The mortar weakens and our walls collapse. We lay down our weapons and surrender to the years.

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We talked, the two of us, and told our stories. I searched for my old hatred and found it gone, lost on some path I took decades and decades ago.

 

I left that man, surprised at my great peace and my great guilt. I am not innocent. I have wrecked havoc, too, shook the ground with anger, pierced hearts with sharp-edged words, and held others hostage behind walls I built myself.

 

I have grown small again and hope to stay that way until I leave. I have had my share of hurts, but I have also hurt others and must make amends, for none of us escape this world unscathed or guiltless.

The body remembers

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The body remembers.

 

The sun-scorched skin can number the days beneath the sky’s great torch, planting grain, lying on the beach, and walking to the train. The knees recall each road they travelled and the weariness of sidewalks and pavement. They can count the ups and downs of stairs you’ve long forgotten. The back has followed every step you’ve taken, holding you upright through the hard days, willing to bend at your command and lift small children, boxes, and bags and bags of groceries. The bones empty themselves to make space for all the memories of stillness. They languished those hours, longing to carry you, to feel the heft of life and movement. In the unseen places, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage journal every blow, fall, jolt, jump, stroll, dance, and spin; most of which you cannot remember.

 

The body grows weary of silence.

 

Year after year the body waited, remembering. The few times it spoke, you listened, tended to its needs, and heard no more. Stories must be told and now the body speaks. The skin brings up memories of the sun, like old photographs printed on your face. The knees insist you listen to the recitation of burdens borne; the back wakes you at night to tell its tales. Day after day the memories excavate within the bones, hollowing them out  for a place to rest, nestling within the fragile spaces of the clavicle, radius, and femur. Tendons, ligaments, and cartilage lose themselves in remembrances that stretch across the years.

 

The body must tell, and should you turn away, it speaks more loudly. Listen it says, this is where I’ve been, this is the road I trod. And you must listen. Where else can you go?

 

 

Elderly woman:  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

 

 

Eating summer

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We eat the strands of sunlight that the plants spend their days gathering. We eat the roar of volcanoes, old memories of fires and dinosaur bones, forgotten car trips, purr of cats, chatter of blue jays, breath of smokestacks, and all of our words, even our silence.

 

We eat earth’s metals – magnesium, zinc and copper – that the plants mine. They find the wells of sweet waters far beneath the soil and draw it up for us.

 

One day in July the garden calls us to eat spring and summer, sweet, salty, tart, and juicy. After we slice the sunlight into a blue bowl, we pour the sun’s golden liquid that we gathered from the tight fists of olives, and eat until our bellies fairly shine. Then we lick the bowl like it was the sky itself.

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