Sunday, October 28, 2007

Quick Glance

Point worth noting: At first glance, it is impossible to tell whether the tide is coming in or going out.

I came to this realization last weekend watching the ocean lap at my feet as I sat on a barnacle-crusted rock that, among many others, had been hoisted onto the beach in an effort to slow erosion.

I happened to be sitting there in an effort to forestall a different kind of erosion: four friends and I had come to the island to breath deeply and talk seriously and laugh loudly and now, on Sunday, they had left for home. As soon as the towels finished drying back at the condo, I would do the same, but as long as I sat on the rock, staring at the wide flat ocean, nothing could eat away at the peacefulness and serenity that buds in the human heart when it feels safe.

There were few people on the beach. It was, after all, October. A couple of kayakers paddled in unison in water just deep enough for their paddles. An awkward teenager splashed in the shallow puddles that surrounded the rocks and squealed as the waves wet her rolled-up pants legs. A man on a bicycle made a wide turn and headed back the way he had come.

I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest, arms wrapped around them and chin perched atop them, as though I'd been spring-loaded, ready to be flung into the sky and out over the ocean in a long wide arc that ended at the horizon. A seated fetal position, a not-so-subtle manifestation of something gestating, but not yet ready to be birthed.

I stared at the sandbar, covered in water, where the rolling sea first makes white foam. I imagined a spot in the middle of the ocean, miles and miles away from land and people, where the water and salt and air that will become the waves seem motionless, the surface almost like glass. But they are not motionless, the water and salt and air. Gravity –– the magnetic force that through the rotation of the planet and its moon creates the tide, pulling in, pushing out, in a predictable rhythm –– has already begun its work.

Making its imperceptible journey toward land the waves feel the resistance of the ocean floor as the water becomes shallower. They move faster, developing power with their speed, and they begin to fold over themselves, grabbing the hovering air, ready to throw themselves in graceful, leaping curves at the shore, ready to lick at the sand beneath me, beneath the rock.

That's when I wondered, for the first time since I'd walked down to the beach, whether the tide was coming in or going out. And that's when I realized, for the first time ever, that a quick glance won't tell.

A quick glance is pretty much all we give most things. A quick glance at the newspaper, a quick glance at the mail, a quick glance at the price tag. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror before changing lanes. Sometimes a quick glance is enough.

But not always. A quick glance at a child's tear-streaked face is not enough. A quick glance at a sunset that smears the sky with the colors of a neon sign is not enough. A quick glance at one's own heart is not enough.

These are matters that require prolonged gazing, lengthy contemplation, lingering consideration. These are matters the essence of which are revealed only with the investment of deep and sometimes painful examination.

Like the tide, these are matters of mystery and magic. Like the tide, their rhythms are ebb and flow. But like the tide, they can be trusted.

One of the things about the beach that always amazes me is that the constant movement can seem so still, that the noise can seem so quiet. That in that place and in that moment I can seem so still and quiet.

I looked down at the water slapping the rocks beneath me. The tide, I could tell, was coming in.

Copyright 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nest Redux

I noticed it, what at first appeared to be a matted, wadded up piece of spider web, as I started down the back steps. It was hanging from the dryer vent moving just slightly in the breeze. As I reached to pull it away I realized that it was a fragment of leaf attached to a thin twig attached to a larger twig stuffed inside the vent, not just dangling on the edge.

I cocked my head for a better look and saw that the vent was completely filled with twigs. It was, in fact, a nest and as I gently scooped it out all I could see was the six loads of clothes I'd dried over the last few days and the conflagration that could have been Sandhill had the nest caught fire.

The nest was about the size of a saucer and only about an inch deep at its center. The outer twigs fell away in my hands with a small poof of dust. Nestled in the hollow at the bottom were four tiny eggs. Tiny like a jelly bean. Tiny like a peanut. Tiny like a pearly button on a baby's christening gown.

Having touched the nest and contaminated it with my humanness, I knew – according to all the nature lore I'd learned as a child and which, admittedly, may or may not be true – that the mother bird, wherever she was, would now abandon the babies-in-process. What was probably closer to scientific actuality is that the eggs were old and the embryos inside were long dead.

Months ago, in spring, I had sat on the deck and watched a little bird, a Carolina wren, dart in and out of the dryer vent. From a distance I'd not seen that she'd been carrying bits and pieces of nest to her new place of abode. I'd thought she was just engaging in the avian version of a real estate showing when what she was really doing was moving in. The mortgage had been signed, the electricity turned on, the change-of-address cards mailed.

Too bad she hadn't talked to the neighbors. I could have told her that central heat, in this case, wasn't such a good idea. That the need for incubation aside, too much of a good thing can be deadly. That there is more to safety than isolation and darkness.

Nestled in my cupped hands, what had been a perfect home – if only for a moment – was now nothing more than a bunch of tender twigs gone brittle in the lingering heat of a lingering summer. The chocolate brown of new shoots had faded to the dull gray of lint. The sap that had made them flexible had dried up like a creek bed in drought.

I stood there staring for a few minutes. Eggs. Usually symbols of new life and beginnings, these four round balls of calcium carbonate contradicted all the myths and fairy tales and traditions. Instead, they had become a metaphor for the result of ignorance, haste, inattention. They had gone from being cradles to coffins.

And as is always the case when I stop to consider the world revolving around me and the fact that it doesn't really revolve around me, I realized how like that little Carolina wren we all are.
We make choices based on limited information and later find ourselves stunned by the unavoidable results of those choices. We elevate comfort over safety and safety over breadth of experience and breadth of experience over loyalty and never even realize that its not elevation we're reaching at all – that this life is not a staircase moving us ever higher, but a Ferris wheel looping us up and down in a never-ending circle.

Something of great importance demanded my attention at that moment, so I laid the nest on the floor of the carport and went inside. That was two days ago. Since then I've been leaving home early, getting home late, suffering with the red eyes and runny nose and hacking cough of allergies and, in general, not paying much attention to anything other than myself.

I have no idea if the nest is still there, if the mother is aware of her dispossession, if the eggs have been desecrated by some night-moving animal. I should know. But I don't.

And that, I have to admit, is as much a metaphor as anything else.

Copyright 2007