Monday, August 31, 2009

Laughing Into The Wind

I was standing in chest-high water, the waves slapping at my back like love-licks. Behind me was the wide wide ocean; in front of me was a water-colored beach – white sand, red lifeguard chair, scattered people in various shades of pink and brown stretched out under the sun that came down in wavy yellow beams.

My friend had left me to become one of those toasting people and so I was alone at the moment, a tiny island just off-shore.

It had been a busy weekend – another wedding! –and I was hungry for space. The sand slid and shifted under my toes which I had curled tightly in an effort to keep my balance. Hands on my hips, chin tilted toward the sky, I took a deep breath.

At just that moment, a pair of pelicans entered the frame of my vision, flying so low I could make out the line where their dark cartilaginous beaks meshed with their jiggly white pouches. I had never been that close to pelicans, never seen them flying so near people. I was startled, but not frightened. They were neither. And with a couple of flaps of long brown wings they were gone.

There are some things that evoke praise, some things that draw forth an eruption of amazement, some things that – rather than take your breath – give you an explosion of breath that pours out in a rolling swell of words. There are some moments when silence is blasphemy.

This was one of those moments.

And so it was that I stood there in the shallows of the endless sea and heard a voice that was clearly mine making exclamations of how very glad I was to be alive, how very grateful I was for the serendipity of pelicans flying low, how very much I wanted to make sure that I squeezed out of that day and every day all that was meant to be mine.

It is, I think, pretty much irrelevant to whom I was speaking – to myself or to the pelicans or to God. What matters is that the words came of their own accord, without hesitation and without editing. What matters is that those small puffs of wind were expelled into and absorbed by the larger wind that makes the waves that make the tides that make the sand into which my toes kept uselessly digging.

I opened my eyes, which I had closed momentarily, to see a boy, 11 or 12 years old, standing about 25 feet away, between me and the beach. He was looking at me. He was looking at me quizzically. He was looking at me as though he wasn’t sure whether to pretend he didn’t see me or to turn and run as fast as he could.

I realized, too late, of course, that the wind – the one that makes the waves and tides – was blowing in. In toward the beach. In toward where he was standing. And, yes, the poor child had heard my spontaneous invocation. I can only imagine what he was thinking.

I gave up the bad habit of allowing myself to be embarrassed a long time ago. There is absolutely no value to it and it takes far too much time and energy. I didn’t, then, feel my face turn red nor did I have an urge to look around as though I, too, had heard something strange and did not know from whence it came. I just looked at him, made as much eye contact as one can from that distance and watched him, in his pre-adolescent suspicion, scope out his mother a little farther down the beach and begin moving in her direction.

It was funny. Really. I am laughing still. Laughing at how silly I must have looked (I think I probably raised my hands at some point.) and sounded. Laughing at how astonished the boy was, his eyes and mouth frozen into three big circles. Laughing at how foolish we are to think that we odd creatures are ever anything but funny.

I waited a few minutes and then slogged my way through the water up onto the beach where I shook out a towel, stretched out and joined the rest of the pink and brown people, all of us different, all of us funny, all of us laughing in short sweet breaths of wind.

Copyright 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

AKC Registered -- Or Not

Lily is a good dog. She loves to go with me when I walk or run down the long dusty roads at Sandhill. She growls alertly at anything or anyone she deems suspicious and she generally comes when she is called.

She lets you know that she wants to be petted by lifting her left front paw and patting whatever part of your body is within reach. She likes to have her belly scratched, but is willing to settle for a quick pass with the bottom of my shoe. She has the square jaw of at least one boxer relative somewhere in her genetic past and when she smiles the lower cuspid on one side of her mouth sticks out over her upper lip making her looking a little like Popeye.

Lily is a good dog. And I love her.

But I have not forgotten Ginny. And sometimes, when I see the long face and sunshine-colored hair of someone else’s golden retriever, my heart clutches just slightly and for a moment I am sitting on the laundry room floor, holding Ginny in my lap, crying over some heartbreak and wiping my eyes with her silky ears.You never get over your first dog.

Which is why, this morning, already running a little bit late, I had no choice but to pick him up. I’d come to the stop sign at 301 and, looking to the left for oncoming traffic, saw this glorious golden retriever loping along the side of the too-busy highway. He walked straight up to the car (Goldens are like that. They trust everyone and believe with all their hearts that everyone loves them.) as though he’d been expecting me.

I got out and reached for his collar, one of those flourescent orange ones with the brass nameplates, the kind that hunters use. This was seen as an invitation to frolic and he began licking my hands and dancing around my legs, wiping me with the dirt and dew that his fur had collected in his wanderings.

Realizing that I’d never be able to read a name or telephone number off his collar unless he was confined, I opened the back door of the car and he jumped right in. I called the number, left a message and turned around to take him back to the farm where he could safely await his master. It took less than 10 minutes and, while I drove, I thought about Ginny.

This dog was lighter in color, bigger in size, a male. Not really much in common with Ginny, except the breed. And that was enough. Enough to let me know that I didn’t need to be afraid of him and that he would gladly accept my kindness.

It occurs to me people are like dogs in that way: We each have our breed. Some of us are chihuahuas, in constant motion, nipping at the heels of anything that moves, yapping constantly. Some of us are poodles, delicate and high-strung. Some of us are boxers with imposing physical presences and Forrest Gump personalities. And, just like dogs, while we’ll travel in a pack of pretty much any combination, but we’d really rather be with some of our own.

Just as I was getting my new friend into the dog pen, his master returned my call, got directions and started our way. I backed the car up and started for the office for the second time this morning.

I didn’t realize until later that I’d not noticed his name. It was on the collar, along with his master’s name and telephone number, but I hadn’t noticed it. It didn’t matter. I knew his breed and that was enough.

Copyright 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Wind and Sand and Sky

Late afternoon. Sun low in the sky, kissing the tops of buildings in the distance. Tide going out in choppy waves.

Daphne and I are sitting on the beach, arms and shoulders and legs exposed to the still-warm air, eyes shielded by dark glasses. We have been inside all day listening to serious and dedicated people talk about the hard things our job forces us to see and hear and try to understand. We have been inundated with images of pain and evil. We have been reminded of the existence of worlds we will never know.

But now, outside, absorbing the sunlight, we are simply admiring each other’s swimsuits, making plans for dinner and talking about life. Talking about it as though we can actually make sense of it, as though we can actually anticipate the future with enough accuracy to be prepared for it, as though we can actually shield ourselves from the possibilities of pain and evil.

To one side of us is a young couple taking down a beach tent, obviously well-practiced as they position themselves at opposite corners and release the latches in unison. On the hard-packed sand near the edge of the water are a handful of young boys, long-legged and skinny, trying to tame the wind and fly kites. Behind us is an elaborate sand castle molded, not from small hands, but turret-shaped plastic buckets.

I absorb it all without being distracted from the conversation, keep my attention on the story Daphne is telling me, offer sensitive and cogent interjections at just the right moments. And, then, I realize that I have turned my head toward the water, that I am watching something other than my friend’s expressive face.

Just off the beach is a windsurfer struggling with his sail. A little farther downwind is another having no better luck. Neither one is particularly skilled. Both are managing to remain upright, but there is no fluidity in their movements, no grace in their maneuvers. They are so close to the shore than I cannot imagine that they are experiencing much in the way of transcendence. I feel sorry for them.

I don’t windsurf. But I have spent hours watching it. I can recognize the pure pleasure that comes from skimming the waves, leaning into the wind and letting it carry board and body and sail through air that smells of sun and salt. These two, the strugglers, are not experiencing that pleasure.

The next night I am talking to my friend the windsurfer, the one from whom I learned what I know, and I tell him about it. "Why," I ask him, "would they be staying so close to shore? That can’t be much fun."

"What was the direction of the wind?" he asks.

I try to remember, tell him where I’d been sitting, figure out that the wind was blowing in.

"That’s it," he says. "To get farther out they would have had to fight the wind. Not everyone wants to work that hard."

Instant gratification. Quick fix. It is what, unfortunately, most of us prefer.

"You put in the effort first," he goes on. "Tack, then sail."

Of course. That is the secret. Put all your energy – ALL your energy – into the climb, then trust gravity to bring you safely down. Put all your effort into the living, then trust life to bring you what you want. Tack, then sail.

The late summer light fades while we talk and I sit in near-darkness. I can close my eyes and I still see the two figures, tense and stiff, knees and elbows locked. I can almost hear the release of tightly-held breaths as their boards strike sand.

And I think about sitting on the beach with Daphne, working on our tans and our lives. I know what I will tell her when I see her again, the next time we find ourselves asking questions and wondering what is ahead.

"It’s all pretty simple," I will say. "Tack, then sail."

Copyright 2009