Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter missionaries and pagans

I'm not saying that the world divides neatly between those who preach and those who play - it just seems like that sometimes. The news, for example, describes almost no middle ground. It's all disaster (and the people who are called upon to fix it) or celebrity (and the people who are called upon to wallow in it). The morals of celebrity and the freedoms of disaster are left to the poets.

Yet writers who are not journalists must always struggle against both (except Jane Austen who in Sense and Sensibility does it so perfectly that nothing sweaty shows). Mere mortals guard constantly against moralizing, and ferociously edit out melodramatic gushing, and the result often creaks and slides with remnants of both. How in fact do you approach an obviously evil world? What do you make of those moments of love and joy? What do you live for?And what is the truth, and is it upper- or lower-cased?

Personally, I can't help but criticize bad actions, bad people, bad outcomes in politics and business and love. I can't help but fall aswoon on Beech Hill, Lucia Beach, in my backyard on the first warm day of spring, in a reading-aloud of Richard Selzer's "Skin." But bringing them together? It seldom works for me on paper.

It's really a religious question, I guess. Do you believe in something ultimate? I obviously have trouble both ways: if you don't believe in something beyond human perception, what's the point of living? If you do, it's logically (and often emotionally) impossible.

I'm (obscurely) comforted by the notion that Easter is just the Christian manifestation of countless pagan rites throughout history and geography. It seems to fit with the maxim (slightly preachy, I admit, even Calvinistic) that although an absolute Truth (God, Nature, Art, Music, Love) is unattainable, we have to go after it anyway. Isn't every day of our lives both an affirmation and a denial? Yes/No seems a perfect answer to Easter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Deer at dusk

As it was getting dark, I looked up from whatever important thing I was doing - perhaps a crossword, tackling someone else's words as a reward for making it through another day of my own - to see two deer on the lawn. They were grazing, and shortly a third joined them. I watched from the big windows in front.

The wind had been strong enough during the last storm to keep the yard clear of snow at the edge of the bank. I immediately thought that the deer must be desperate for food to go for the brown stuff that passes for lawn these days (and most days, I must admit, even in summer), and so much in the open besides, just 30 feet away. The rest of their world is still covered with snow, and by late March they must have reaped all of the Spanish moss and cedar bows within miles. But they looked healthy, and of course elegant, and I probably was reading too much into their apparent bravado. Or maybe my mossy grass was a bit of dessert.

Then I thought of agriculture, as if I were raising deer like cows in a field, and they would nuzzle my hands after feeding if I slowly and carefully went down to them. (Quite a field - just a few feet from the ocean, like a taste of a saltwater farm.) It's true that deer in these rural parts are at least partly domesticated, if by that we mean they tolerate humans to a degree for the bounty of our ornamental shrubs and flowers. I think it was their calmness that made me think of them as tame and friendly. They would look up and twitch their ears every ten or fifteen seconds, especially when I moved from one window to another, as if they couldn't quite figure out what that flickering shadow in the big grey tree was up to, but my general impression was that they were unafraid.

After 10 minutes or so, they wandered over into our neighbor's yard. They continued to feed quietly, and only one of them looked up at the airplane, prop-driven, noisy, lights like probes, roarng in just above. The other two kept right on nibbling.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reproach

The "thud" against the house was a familiar sound. I knew at once what it meant and got up to investigate who it was this time.

Of course, the look she gave me was not reproachful. A bird, not even a beautiful female cardinal, isn't capable thereof (I think), although flying into a glass window would certainly be cause enough.

The first time I looked, she sprawled a little awkwardly - one wing was extended unnaturally - in the thin layer of snow on the deck. I feared the worst, that she was dead, or would die shortly. A few minutes later, it was clear she was better. She was perching more normally. That's when she gave me the eye.

I assumed in my guilt that she indeed could see me standing safe and warm behind the French doors. I also assumed, at least for one terrible moment, that she was blaming me for what had happened to her. Never mind that the living room extends out from the house such that there are windows on three sides, thus offering the illusion of a path through. Never mind that I had nothing to do with the building of the house. Never mind that the pathetic fallacy is indefensible. I am the proprietor. I'm responsible if she dies. I should have darkened my windows, or something.

That she - apparently - fully recovered (or at least was gone when next I looked) is a tribute to animals but not to humans. I can't imagine, for example, that Usain Bolt would survive as well as a humble little bird, either in body or in bravado, an impact with a transparent wall provided by the IOC at the end of his record-setting run. I can't imagine how the creatures of the natural world survive the countless insults we humans put in their way. When the tables are turned, say, by a tsunami or a northeaster or a plague of locusts, we give up the ghost and run crying to our God or our iPhone. But a mere cardinal bears my impudent windows, and lives to sing another day.

PS - she did live. I saw her the next day  in a tree just outside the window.

Friday, March 15, 2013

New essay

I have a new essay out at Connotation Press . I probably shouldn't admit it, but it describes someone who's almost the perfect definition of a Masshole.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why walking?

Having been nearly a month OOM*, I'm very pleased to be back, especially on a mild Tuesday when only a couple of cars during the course of an hour's walk this morning disturbed the germination of skunk cabbage and ideas. Such a walk on the roads and lanes of Owls Head is my emblem of return, and here are the reasons why.

1. Must bow to the currents gods and say that walking is a good form of exercise, not the best, but suitable for someone who no longer cares to impress.
2. Will distinguish walking from hiking, which is more of a worship (of body and vista) than a communion, the way California coast and hills (they stun) contrast with Maine coasts and hills (they soothe).
3. Finds the familiar place, does the same route over and over, yet allows time and space to expect the unusual (eagle, fallen tree, first skunk cabbage of spring, progress on that McMansion down Lucia Beach). Can easily stop and stare or grouse.
4. Provides just enough tonic for restlessness. Not necessary to beat the restlessness out with tennis or running, just applies a nice salve.
5. Springs me outside walls, face bathed in breeze, bugs, sleet, heat, sunshine, fog - anything but the glow of a screen and the succor of a sofa.
6. Experiences nature with just a little difficulty, a little sweat, and a little soreness in calf and arch after an hour. Pretends to be Great North Woodsman. Could if I wanted to.
7. Allows time to rehearse conversations, in the several senses of the word rehearse: repeats past talks but invents new responses to find a better light or less embarrassment; invents and proposes imaginary dialogue with hero novelists; practices opening lines for future tasks; tries to remember Leonard Cohen lyrics.
8. Does not listen to music - far too irruptive.
9. Solves problems of the world, provides last lines of essays, practices blog posts.
10. Proves that all we really want out of life is to know one place, deeply, lovingly, slowly, sacredly.

*Out Of Maine, Odds-On Melancholy

Friday, March 8, 2013

California dreaming

Our week in California went by as if we were in a dream, made more so by the day-mares of weather at either end of the trip, on the way west just escaping a big storm in Boston when it turned to rain and on the way east beating by eight hours a big storm in Chicago. To be able to foil Boston's February is fantastic enough, but then to go to sunny and warm California besides!

Not only the weather was a heavenly escape. We stayed with our daughter and her boyfriend in the hills just west of the Central Valley near Davis (where they are attending grad school). Yes, this area is populated, each hill topped by a house, others straggling in the little valleys, but the lots are very large, and almost everyone has kept big trees and tends a garden and keeps sheep or lamas or goats or ostriches (!) or cows grazing around the house, and jackrabbits run freely around and through the fences and a herd of a dozen deer wanders around and over the fences and regularly rests in the pines next in the driveway leading to our daughter's house. They were our welcoming party when we drove up to the geodesic dome on an appropriately named Sunday..

The kids do live in a dome home, having lucked out in the rental market around the university. It's a dream of a place on the top of a hill, surrounded by trees and cactus and oleander like a reverse moat, circled by a deck 90% of the way around, its walls inside showing how triangles are made into a sphere. From the deck we watched the sun set over the western hills.

A remarkable feature of California is that you can see hills and mountains almost everywhere. The lower ones are developed, but beautifully, lightly, sustainably, a true American dream of large houses, of cattle grazing on the hillsides so green in spring, of millions of acres of vineyards now extending well outside Napa and Sonoma. But even more dream-like are the bigger hills as yet undeveloped, a curious patchwork of thick woods and open meadows that looks planned but isn't, and of course the big mountains to the east and north, containing an array of national parks and forests truly unbelievable in allure and beauty. This boy's dream of Yosemite might actually happen.

Another feature of the landscape is the often sharp divide between city and country. The Bay area cities extend for a horribly long way east along I-80 (whose horrible traffic we discovered one morning driving into San Francisco), but once out of their grasp, the towns further east become manageable. I suppose it's only a matter of time before more development springs out of farmland (we did see some "retirement communities" and one large casino in the middle of nowheres) but for now in towns like Davis and Vacaville development stops abruptly and fields begin. The suburban sprawl we see in the East is not so prominent in northern California, which has densely packed cities, exurban farmlets, and (still) vast amounts of true wilderness. This is not true of southern California, some people's definition of hell.

Here you dream with eyes wide open. The variety of stimulus is huge: the green hills, terraced rows of vines, redwood forests, the glorious coast. The sheer bigness of the place means I wouldn't get any work done for years if we ever moved. I'd always be dreaming of the next twist, the next vista, on the mountain trail. Of course we were there at the best time of the year (not the impossibly hot summer, not the chilly, rainy winter). So in a way I'm glad to wake up this week back in New England, back in a snowstorm (going on 10 inches last night and this morning), back to work, until our spring and summer begin and the kids can dream of Maine and we can live it.