Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Caribou and Coyotes

The fog thins just enough for me to see the sun, a flat white communion wafer floating in a halo of wavy opalescence. The trees and fences and barns beneath it stand unusually straight, as though three dimensions are not enough to spotlight their long lines and sharp angles. My hand on the steering wheel moves left and right, in the easy rhythm of a weaver’s shuttle, following the curves of the road toward that flat white sun onto which it is easy to believe that, if I just keep going, I could slide like a baserunner stealing home.

It is a morning for contemplation. No radio news or iPod music. No telephone calls to return or mental lists to make. Just breathing. And looking around. And wondering.

I was reading the other day about caribou. Most of the world (and North Americans during the month of December) call them reindeer. They have specialized noses that warm cold air before it reaches their lungs and hooves that adapt to the season. They are believed to be the only mammals that can see ultraviolet light.

The caribou are migratory animals and some populations travel up to 3,100 miles a year covering 390,000 square miles, the furthest of any terrestrial mammal. The ones who live near the Arctic Circle follow the same migration path every year, an innate sense of some kind drawing them into the footsteps of their forebears. Also drawn to this same path year after year are the coyotes who feed on the caribou, who patiently and lazily lie in wait for the inevitable buffet.

One would think – if one were, say, driving into town on a foggy autumn morning and being more successful than usual at keeping at bay one’s own mental coyotes – that the caribou would eventually, maybe not this year or next year, but over a few caribou generations, figure out the need to change that path, to shake things up a bit in order to preserve the population. One could imagine, without much effort, the old bulls, slower but wiser, lowering their five-foot wide antlers and nudging the calves toward a detour. One might think that, if they didn’t, being able to preheat their oxygen or see in the dark wouldn’t amount to much more than parlor tricks for some future reindeer diaspora.

There is a legend that says the caribou are what keep the earth turning. That over the millennia their hooves have worn a deep crown into the top of the world. That they run, pounding into the ground at 50 miles per hour, regardless of what stands in their way, including the coyotes, because if they stop so will the planet. There is, says the recounter of the legend, "an inner necessity that outweighs all consequence."

I have had a number of difficult conversations lately with someone who is dear to me, someone who has loved me for a long time. There are things about which we disagree. Not inconsequential things, but important things, heart things. My dear one does not understand some of the choices that I have made, does not understand that, in fact, they were not choices at all, but simply the outward manifestation of that inner necessity.

I have tried to explain. I have not succeeded. All that the dear one sees are the consequences, the coyotes crouched in the shadows by the side of the path I’ve chosen and the scars left by the ones that came along before.

I notice that the fog has cleared a bit. The sun has warmed to margarine yellow and grown larger as it topped the pine trees that trimmed the cotton fields. It is easier to see the other cars and trucks in the herd headed toward town. Fog, it should be noted, disperses more easily than hard feelings.

We are all migratory animals. The food and shelter we seek may not be literal and the seasons we follow may be emotional rather than calendar ones, but every ear has heard a call that will not be silenced. Every heart has sensed a purpose that will not be ignored. I know this because, despite the coyotes, the earth keeps turning.

And I know that, eventually, fog always disappears.
Copyright 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

To Every Thing ...

The sun this morning is a cross-section of pink grapefruit back-lit by a strobe light. It balances on the horizon, pulsing and trembling with the tension of anticipation, as though the day can not begin quickly enough. As the road curves, it moves back and forth like the bouncing ball on the old Mitch Miller television show and I find myself wishing desperately that I knew the song.  I try to identify what I am feeling and I settle on wistfulness. 

The summer has faded too quickly.  The pale pink blooms on the cotton plants outside my back door that just days ago could have passed, at a distance, for tightly closed peonies, have popped like popcorn into thick white bolls. The rabbits have made their seasonal dine-and-dash into the hosta bed leaving behind gnawed stems that splay out like the hair on a cartoon Einstein. The sycamore tree has dropped its first feeble leaves.

In a few days I will have a birthday.  Is it possible that the wistfulness is not for the summer, but for something else?

I hear myself telling people that I will turn 55 and I wonder from where did that particular colloquialism come. The verb turn has so many different meanings – to change direction or allegiance, to rot or become rancid, to injure by twisting, to change color, to move around, to divert or deflect. None of them makes much sense in the context of getting older.

Last year, when I turned 54, I decided that before I gained another year I would do 55 things I’d not done before. There was no check-list; the point was to be open to newness and change and adventure in an intentional way and trust that Life would bring me experiences that would, in the words of Walter Cronkite, alter and illuminate my times.

So, in the last year I have, among other things, given blood, eaten an oyster, served communion, attended a drive-in movie and a Jewish worship service (within twelve hours of each other), run a road race, talked in my sleep, finally climbed the lighthouse on St. Simons, and taken the hunter safety course. I also ate kale, collards, sushi, and a tomato I grew myself. I spent a Saturday night riding in a police cruiser, signed a book contract, and went to Europe.

The point, of course, was not the number itself or even reaching the goal (which I did with one week to spare). The point was to get to that next birthday and not simply be a year older, but a year wiser, wider, deeper, stronger. And I am. I know things, feel things, can do things that I did not know, had not felt, could not do a year ago. I have broadened my perspective and narrowed my focus. I, at long last, have an idea of what I am capable of being.

"Some things just come by birthdays," Daddy says. Including, I can now say, the value of birthdays themselves.

Within minutes the pink grapefruit sun has floated up into the sky like a helium balloon escaped from a toddler’s fist. It is smaller, more yellow. Its light is less shimmery. It is no longer daybreak but early morning. And soon early morning will yield to day which will, in turn, give way to high noon. The round circle in the sky will move, will change size and color, will cast shadows and erase them completely before slinging them in the opposite direction. It will move all the way across the wide and wondrous sky before it silently slips from sight.

Is that, I wonder, what it is to turn 55 or whatever age is the next number up? Is it simply moving from one place to another in a graceful arc? Is it at long last recognizing oneself as a sun, not a moon, a body capable of producing its own heat and light? Is it finally, finally realizing that the changing size, the changing color, the presence or absence of shadows is nothing more than the illusions of those who watch from the ground?

I think I know the song now.  Summer has faded.  But autumn, golden autumn is on its way.