Monday, December 20, 2010

A Man's Reach

The blinds cut the winter sunshine into thick slices and they fall across my shoulder in long broad stripes. The movement of the rocking chair, forward and back, turns them into waves – reaching out and pulling back, a tide of light. Jackson is tilted in the crook of my arm, the rays making a halo of the soft fuzz on the top of his head.

He is, of course, an extraordinary child (as they all are to those to whom they belong). At six months old his coos float from the front of his mouth in long multi-syllabic strings and every so often he expels a deep breath from the top of his throat that sounds exactly like, "Hey!" When he does that while looking at me, I can’t help laughing out loud. Right now, though, he is quiet, mesmerized by the blinking links on the Christmas tree his great-grandmother hasn’t quite finished decorating. He stretches his fleshy pink hands toward them so slowly that the movement itself can’t be detected. What makes him reach? What makes him flex muscles he does not know he has, extend an arm which he can’t possibly understand is himself?

There is so much he has to learn. Walking will not be easy; there’s the whole balance thing to master. Talking, too, despite his adeptness at cooing, will take time; the voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative (the "th" sound) that he will have to master to say his great-aunt’s name is a real booger. Someone will have to teach him the multiplication tables, state capitals and the difference between amphibians and reptiles. Using the toilet, using a straw, using chopsticks. How to drive a tractor, cast a fishing line, throw a change-up.

But, somehow, before he can sit up alone, the child knows how to reach.

It is Christmas and so thoughts of my baby, our baby lead me to thoughts of the other baby, the one we visualize with wisps of straw sprayed around his mostly-naked little body, the one completely nonplussed by the large animal nostrils hovering over his face or the brilliant angel-light shining into his just-opened eyes, the one with the stamp of otherworldliness all over him.
For what did he reach? The flash of the jewels on the robes of the Magi? The softness of his mother’s breast?

The better question, I suspect, the question whose answer could and should make a difference in the way we live our lives is this one: For what did he reach when he grew to be a man? When the reach was no longer instinctual or involuntary, toward what did Jesus stretch out his hands? The leprous, the lame, the blind, the dead. The unloved, the disenfranchised, the condemned. The fearful, the hungry, the tired. He stretched them out as far as they would go and then left us with instructions to follow his example.

Jackson is sitting on his great-grandmother’s knees. She bounces him up and down. They both laugh. He reaches for her glasses.He will not be a baby forever. He will grow up, become a man, redirect his reaching. And in the light of this December afternoon I can only watch him sparkle like the Christmas tree lights and pray that his reaching will not be toward things, but always toward others.

Copyright 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

Expectations Knotted and Tied

The laid-out field on the other side of the pond dam is unrolled like a bolt of ecru lace, knotted and tied into a landscape of bumps and nubs. That which was left to sprout and grow on its own over the spring and summer has died, stems and leaves that once stretched toward the sky now bent into creamy curves back toward the earth. The whole world is the color of toast.

To the left I can follow the property line toward the creek and then into the woods. To the right I can follow the rear edge of the pond and circle back toward the house. I am suddenly feeling contrary; I don’t want to follow anything. I walk straight into the overgrowth.

It feels as though I am walking on a quilt. The grass and clover and volunteer corn give quietly to my footfall and cushion each step. My shoes disappear and then reappear like a threaded needle. I know exactly where I am, but it feels as though I have discovered some new territory, am standing on some spot of earth where no one has stood for a long, long time.

Tractors pulling harrows and plows, combines churning and chewing stalks and vines, these are the treads to which these acres have grown accustomed, these are the footprints that men leave behind these days. I wonder how long it has been since a human being, even my father, has planted a foot here, exactly here.

I look down and realize that I have come upon a deer trail, a crease in the soil leading up to the rise that separates this field from the adjacent cultivated one. Heart-shaped prints overlap each other and never deviate more than three or four inches from the path. I cannot tell where it started and, following it now, I cannot tell where it leads.

But I follow it anyway. Up the slope toward the field road, up through taller grass that now grasps at my pants legs with burrs. Up and up even after the tracks themselves become hidden in the grass and I move ahead on memory and instinct alone.

Yesterday afternoon Lee Lee arrived for a brief visit. As old friends do, we spent the first of our few hours together catching up – bragging on children who are longer children, wondering whatever had happened to people with whom we had shared our college days. Eventually, though, as the day waned and our voices softened, we spoke of ourselves.

The longevity of our relationship is both a balm and a goad. She knows who I was and who I have become. I know the same of her. In each other’s presence we cannot be anyone other than who we are. With each other we cannot pretend. From each other we cannot hide.

In half-sentences, in phrases that trailed off into the lamp-lit night we wondered and supposed and queried. We solved no problems, we unraveled no mysteries, we reconciled no dilemmas. We asked a lot of questions, told a few stories and came to one single conclusion: This – this world, this life, the circumstances in which we now find ourselves – is not what we had expected.

I think of that now as I walk. The unexpected warmth and golden light of this late November Sunday. The unexpected deer trail. The unexpected softness of the dead foliage under my feet. Is anything ever what we expect?

Not long ago, Lee Lee made some hard decisions and changed the direction of her life. The paint that was always under her fingernails as an artist has been replaced by dirt. The sustainable farming that piqued her interest as a hobby has become her passion and her work. The near-constant sunshine of Florida has given way to the distinct seasons of Appalachia. She seemed to me, as we spoke of the inevitability of change, incredibly brave.

A few years ago I created a guest book for Sandhill. A blank book with a creamy silk cover. A Christmas gift from another friend, one I’ve known even longer than I’ve known Lee Lee. I’ve asked everyone who has spent the night under my quiet country roof to write a few words, just a remembrance for me of the time we spent together in my corner of the world.

Before she left I asked Lee Lee if she had remembered to write in the book. "Just a brief note," she said and smiled impishly, looking for the moment exactly like the innocent and unscarred 18-year-old I first knew.

Later, gathering up the bed linens in the guest room, I saw the book on the night stand and stopped to read what she’d had to say. "Okay, Kathy," she had written at the top of the page. "It's your turn. Make it what you want."

I felt the tears well up in my eyes. That was not what I expected.

Copyright 2010