Monday, September 29, 2008

Shifting Lanes, Detours and Fallen Trees

So, a tree falls in the woods or, in this particular situation, across a dirt road. Whether it made a sound is somewhat irrelevant when the road across which it has fallen is the road to one's house. Silent or cacophonous, the result of the arboreal capitulation is the same – impeded access.

We have had quite a few downed trees in our corner of the county this year. Several have fallen on power lines leaving us waiting perhaps not so patiently while the folks from Excelsior Electric made their way slowly through arteries to arterioles to capillaries. Most of them, however, have landed, without any interference, to very neatly bisect the road and divide the world into those at home and those away.

The unusual number of collapses is due, I think, to several reasons. The heavy equipment of loggers who have been harvesting the forests along the road have weakened the trees' root systems. County road maintenance includes dragging the ditches for debris, a practice that results in the trees closest to the road balancing on smaller and smaller pedestals. And, of course, some of the trees are just old. They hit the ground and, instead of splintering, dissolve into the finest of sawdust.

Whatever the reason, we've all learned to be watchful this summer, to pay closer attention to what lies ahead in the rocky gray dust.

Or, at least I thought I had. Driving home the other afternoon, not just daydreaming, but completely lost in somber contemplation, I topped the hill and was jolted back into reality by the sight of a tree stretched across the road as though it had simply gotten tired and decided to lie down. It was a scrub oak, gray and gnarly, bare of any foliage, its branches thin and bent at odd sharp angles. It covered about three quarters of the road, leaving just enough room on the far side to ease a car by without sliding into the ditch.

Having hit the brakes at first sight, I maneuvered the car slowly between the topmost branches and the slanted face of the ditch with inches to spare on either side. I drove the remaining half mile to home and promptly forgot about the tree.

Until the next morning when it startled me coming from the other direction. And then that afternoon when it surprised me again. After a couple of days it occurred to me that no one was going to move the tree.

The tree was not a sapling. It could not be dragged out of the road by one or even two people. It would have to be cut up or pulled away by a tractor pulling a heavy chain. I, having neither a chain saw nor a tractor, had no responsibility for the removal. But because I traveled that way every day, I had to be aware of its presence, had to circumnavigate its substantial self, had to avoid the dangers that it offered simply by being.

After about a week of making a loop around the poor dead tree twice a day, it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to be learning something, something beyond the idea that it would be handy to have my own chain saw. Something along the lines of: There are things in life over which I have no control, whether minor annoyances or life-changing events, and if I'm going to be able to keep moving, not be wrecked on the rocks or stuck on the sandbar, I can't just wait for someone else to come along and remove the obstacle. I, on my own and for myself, have to find a way around.

I have to be honest. That doesn't necessarily appeal to me. Not the thought of having to find my own way. I'm really good at that. No, the part that makes my fur stand up is the necessity of acknowledging that my own way will sometimes have to be around, not through. That more often than not I'll be hugging the edge of the ditch rather than straddling the centerline. And that getting home will take more effort than I thought.

I guess it's a good thing that getting home will be worth it.

Copyright 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008


Pedestrians have the right-of-way. The ones we get in the country, however, don't always cross at the corner or wait for the light.

When every trip begins on a dirt road you develop the ability, not quite an instinct, to respond to the sudden dart, the unexpected flash of fur that moves from periphery to focus in a fraction of a second. You learn that a rabbit generally runs straight across and the only effort needed to avoid it is a slight turn in the direction from which it came. You learn that a squirrel is decidedly undecided and the only thing you can do is grip the steering wheel, mutter "Please, please, please! Don't, don't, don't!", and hope you won't feel that slight thud under the chassis.

A turtle you just go around. You just wait for the wild turkey to stumble toward the ditch and, at the last possible moment, throw itself into the air. Deer, dashing across a field or out of the brush, call for nothing more than quick reflexes. Sometimes even that doesn't help.
Rabbits, squirrels, turtles, deer. You get used to them.

This morning, however, there was something else. A pedestrian I'd never encountered before. A sudden flash at the corner of my eye and then, headed straight into the path of the car, something long and wet, fat and round. In that strange way that the human brain processes thousands of pieces of information in less than a second, I experienced simultaneously panic and repulsion and fear, exactly what anyone experiences when The Unknown takes material shape and invades one's conscious.

As I lifted my foot from the accelerator and goose bumps rose on my arms, I realized that the creature was a beaver, not yet full-grown, his dark wet fur plastered against his skin and glistening in the morning sunshine. He had darted from the pond that comes right up to the edge of the pavement straight onto the county-maintained road and, clearly, had no idea that his impulsivity would land him in harm's way.

Spinning around on himself, he scurried back the way he had come and disappeared back over the edge of the dam. I shook myself to dispel the goose bumps and speeded back up.

This has been the summer of the funerals. Eight since the first of June. I am weary of funerals. Weary of watching the faces of people I love reflecting the pain of losses that can not be recouped. Weary of trying to find words that do not sound trite and insincere. Weary, quite frankly, of the flowers and food and fatigue of jarringly inane conversation.

It is not as though death is a stranger. It is, as the paradoxical cliche' tells us, a part of life. But no one, not even the most exhausted caregiver, is ever prepared.

Most of the deaths I've noted this summer were like the rabbit or squirrel or even the deer: I was startled out of my ordinary daily routine, but responded appropriately without thinking. Three times it was the long-ill mother of a friend. Twice a grandparent of someone close.

A couple, though, were like that unfamiliar, chill-producing beaver. Out of place, stunning. They left me reminded in jarring terms that all we hold close, all that motivates us to get up each morning, all that provides any meaning is so ephemeral, so transient, so temporary.

They reminded me that, despite our ridiculous efforts at preparedness – whether for a hurricane that never arrives or the death of someone we love –, life is a serious of shocks and surprises. Some are heart-breaking, some are delights. Some are history-altering, some are inconsequential to all but a few. Some are nothing more than inconveniences, all are pedestrians demanding the right-of-way. And as for all pedestrians, the only thing to do is slow down and watch what happens.

Copyright 2008

Monday, September 01, 2008


Life is not The Container Store.

Life is not my attic.

The Container Store is open and bright. Its aisles are wide and its shopping carts are shiny stainless steel.

The Container Store is filled with empty things (boxes, cabinets, trays, bottles) made from various materials (paper, glass, plastic, straw) offered for purchase by consumers who have items (socks, CD's, spices, staples) they wish to contain. The empty things are stacked and sorted on rows and rows of identical shelves set out on a grid that looks like a vast magnification of the graph paper we used in high school to plot coordinates for Miss Kemp.

The empty things are clean and clear. The empty things are beautiful and seductive. The empty things whisper, "I will make your life better if you will only take me home."

My attic looks nothing like The Container Store. It also has boxes, but none of them are empty. Some are labeled, some are not. A few match, most don't. All are gathering dust.

One box is all that is left of Ginny – her collar, her blanket, her vet records. For 11 years she came when I called, loved me when I didn't deserve loving, offered her ears as handkerchiefs. Another box is Wesleyan – birthday cards, programs, costumes, purple everything, reminders of the four years during which I figured out who I could be. There is one box that holds toys and puzzles from Adam's and Kate's childhoods, one that holds my Girl Scout badge and ceramic projects from summer camp, and a couple that hold secrets.

My attic is dark and, this time of year, hot. Some of the boxes are held together by packing tape. Some of them have been infiltrated by mice. All of them are surrounded by a great swath of itchy insulation and a maze of PVC pipe.

The room at the top of the stairs would seem to have little resemblance to the pristine, almost Aryan, perfection of The Container Store. It would seem to be, in fact, at the opposite end of the spectrum.

I heard a song not long ago that began, "My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away." The first time I heard it, I whispered to myself, "Yes!" The trap door to my mind's attic was closed and I smiled at the thought that I could walk down the hall under the swinging white cord with nary a notice. I had finally learned how to remember without recriminating, how to recall without reliving, how to recollect without rewriting.

What I hadn't learned, however, is that life, with all its unflagging determination to astonish, its frustrating lack of predictability and its constant requirement for recalibration, refuses to be contained. I hadn't learned that light bends. That the opposite ends of the spectrum – the spots where The Container Store, with its fresh and unused bins, and my attic, with its bruised and bulging boxes, lie – are, with all the flexing and twisting and turning, the same place.

You can get there by holding on to everything, every photo, every calendar, every ticket stub, or you can get there by holding on to nothing, turning your pockets inside out and opening your clenched fists. But you're still going to get there, the place where you finally figure out that, no matter how hard you try, life can't be controlled.

I hadn't learned it then, the day I heard that song for the first time, but I have now. And when I listen these days, I think I hear a little irony in Sheryl Crow's voice. I think she's learned it, too. That yesterday can't be boxed up. That it is never neatly put away. That life is not The Container Store and life is nobody's attic.

Copyright 2008