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

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