Monday, March 31, 2014

A Parade and A Pyramid

Jackson is almost four.  That age at which he understands his separateness from other people, but does not yet understand the separateness of his emotions.  His will is clear and distinct, but his heart is still one with the world.  Whatever is happening to him, be it highest joy or deepest sorrow, is happening to the world.  That thing – the filter, the wall, the individuation of identity – that will eventually teach him that this is not so, that his feelings are uniquely his and that not everyone can be trusted with them –  has yet to take hold.  
I am sitting on the curb watching him and his cousins jockey for position along the edge of the road as the St. Patrick’s Day parade flows by.  As soon as a float-rider’s arm cocks back to toss a handful of Jolly Ranchers into the street, the three of them dash forward to scoop up the treasure.  Other children converge from different angles and the result of the looting and pillaging is not always an equitable division of loot.  As the youngest and smallest among the group camped on that section of sidewalk, Jackson does not always return triumphant.
When he does, the plastic-wrapped corn syrup confection clutched in his little fist, he is ecstatic.  When he does not, his hands empty, his shoulders drooping surprisingly low for a four-year-old, he is morose.  The speed with which he moves from one expression to the other corresponds exactly to the speed at which the next float or tractor or pamphlet-distributing politician appears.  
Driving home at the end of the day, my arms still holding the heat of the sunshine and my head the image of my sweet boy waving his arms to get the attention of the candy-throwers, the parade turns into parable.  I realize that, for Jackson, the candy had not really been the object.  Each time he had been successful in gathering up a piece or two, he’d quickly brought it to the curb and handed it over to either me or his mother.  Once or twice he’d actually opened the package only to stick his tongue to whatever was inside and decide against it.  But he kept going back, kept hurrying hard into the scrum of children.  His prize, though he couldn’t know it yet, was the participation.
People whose business it is to know these things – teachers and preachers, psychologists and seers – tell us that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation and it influences a wide range of behavioral and emotional responses.  On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it is right there near the top.  It is the impulse behind every dare ever accepted and the impetus for many a Las Vegas wedding and ill-advised tattoo.  And Jackson has just reminded me that that craving, that insatiable hunger to be a part of something, doesn’t suddenly appear in middle school.  It is there from the very beginning.
It is also there to the very end.  
My fingers are curved around the steering wheel and my eyes are fixed on the flat straight road before me.  Miles ahead the white lines on either side converge into a single point and the road disappears.  The vanishing point.  I am headed toward the vanishing point.  For a moment I am acutely aware of Jackson’s youth and my age, painfully alert to the fact that I may not be around to see his tattoos or hear the stories of the dares he takes or – please, God! – doesn’t.  
I take a breath.  And with the breath the realization comes: This is what it means to be family.  Belonging from the very beginning.  Belonging to the very end.  By blood or by happy accident.  Without having to earn your way in.  Without concern that you’ll spend your way out.  With the freedom to run into the street to grab whatever you can and the absolute assurance that there’s a place to return even with empty hands.

Copyright 2014

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marks of Punctuation, Signs of Life

I like punctuation marks.  I like to know when something ends, when it’s over.  

Which is why this winter has just about driven me to the point of madness.  It’s been a sentence in a William Faulkner novel, winding capriciously from one place to another, picking up subject after subject with tentacle-like conjunctions and prepositions, offering jolts of unexpected discomfort with exclamations and interjections, creating confusion with unpronounceable words and unusual syntax.  

It’s been an Emily Dickinson poem.  Lovely.  At times.  But more often difficult.  To withstand.  Or understand. Or even stand.  On the ice.

In an ordinary winter I know that on New Year’s Day I can clench my jaws and hunch my shoulders against the coming cold and simply soldier through until the first daffodil appears along the ditch at the old house at the crossroads.  This, however, was no ordinary winter.  The dully cold days of January gave way to a foreign February, days of rain and ice followed by something impersonating spring which fled quickly in the wake of more rain and ice and wind.   

And it wasn’t just the weather.  Three Friday afternoons in a row, I stood in a line at a funeral home visitation.  On the Sunday after one of those Fridays, I stood to give the eulogy for one of my dearest friends.  

When March arrived all sunny and balmy, it was clearly in disguise, but I was so eager, so desperate, really, for winter – outside and in – to disappear that I embraced it crazily, only to be betrayed once again as its true intentions were revealed as soon as enough windows had been opened, enough arms had been bared, enough shoes had been shed.  Winter wasn’t over.

I stood at the window looking at the first ruffly sprouts of leaves on the saw-tooth oaks laughing just a little sarcastically at their audacity.  Nature can be so naive.

Then I noticed something I’d not seen when I got home the night before.  The narrow strip of land between what passes for the yard at Sandhill and the branch that borders the pond, the little slip of woods where scrub oaks and bay trees, grapevines and Queen Anne’s lace, kudzu and honeysuckle grow and meld into a particular ecosystem, had been burned off.  The dead undergrowth that, over the winter, had created something like a choke collar on the trunks and stems was gone and in its place was a flat black layer of soot and the faint smell of sulfur.

I suspect it was Keith who struck the match that started the burn – leaned over in the wind, cupped his hand around the tiny little flame, and held it close to the tinder that would ignite all the debris.  He stood there (I know this without having seen it.) for a few minutes to make sure that the line of orange was moving steadily with the breeze and then left the fire to do its work.

It’s what you do in spring.  You ready the land for something new to grow by eliminating the last vestiges of the crop that was there before.  It doesn’t lessen the value of that previous crop, it just brings it to an end.  It just adds a punctuation mark.

I stared for a moment at the black line.  I thought I heard it say, “One cannot always depend on nature to signal the turn of seasons.  Sometimes one must mark the change oneself.  Sometimes one must decide and take action.  Sometimes one must light a match, start a fire, and whisper to oneself, ‘This is where it ends.’” 

Copyright 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Chaos and Comfort

The ice storm was upon us.  The rain had been falling since the night before and, in the cold cold air, the water had chosen not to drip from but cling to the branches and freeze.   The power lines were drooping like the fluttering eyelids of a baby fighting sleep.  It was time to get home.

But just in case there is no power when I get there, I thought, I should probably grab a bite to eat.  So it was that I was sitting at the window at Zaxby’s, debit card in hand, when the lights went out. With no way to take my money and nothing else to do with my blackened blue salad with light vinaigrette dressing, the manager handed it over with a resigned smile.  “I’ll come back and pay,” I promised.  

“No need,” he smiled.  “Just fill out a comment card the next time you come in.”

I carefully pulled out on to Fair Road, to which I refer as the Georgia Southern Autobahn, noticing immediately that the traffic light, like those at Zaxby’s, was out.  Cars coming from all four directions were inching slowly toward the center of the intersection trying to figure out who had the right-of-way, when it was safe to accelerate.  I quickly started counting in my mind the number of traffic lights between me and home.  I caught my breath when I thought of the one at 301South and Veterans Parkway.  We were on the verge of chaos.

The verge of chaos.  That narrow sliver of time during which one recognizes the impending loss of control and still resists it.  That place within oneself where the way things are supposed to be is still visible, but fading.  That physical sensation that masquerades as frustration, but is nothing more than fear.

A friend of mine had surgery over the holidays.  It forced her to cancel travel plans and miss seeing family.  When she got back to work she couldn’t find her rhythm.  A few days after the ice storm she wrote to me, “I can't seem to catch up ...  Is it me?  Is it life?  Everything feels so chaotic lately.”

I wrote back, “Is it just awful of me to say that it's a comfort to hear you use the word ‘chaotic’?”

I am uncomfortable with chaos.  As a small child I was dismayed to see a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup shelved with the Chicken and Stars at the old Piggly Wiggly on South Main and wouldn’t leave the aisle until I’d made sure that all the varieties were in their proper orders.  I am unsettled by everything from an unmade bed or a crooked picture to loud arguments between people I love.  I am compelled to make the bed, to get out my level and straighten the picture, to mediate the disagreement. 

The past couple of months, punctuated by unusual weather events and too many funeral home visitations and a round of antibiotics, have felt like nothing less than one interminable fit of chaos.  Unmade beds and uneven pictures have floated at the periphery of my vision with nary a notice.  So, awful or not, it was, in fact, a comfort to know that my friend was living through something at least a little similar.

My fingers paused over the keyboard for a moment.  I took a deep breath, noticed the sunshine coming through the window.  “But, then again,” I typed, “I am reminded that in all the creation stories, chaos is what existed BEFORE ... before the word is spoken, before the light separates from the darkness, before life arises.  Perhaps there is hope in it.”

I wasn’t at all sure I believed it even as I hit “send.”

That night when I got home I noticed the hydrangea between the deck and the carport.  The hydrangea whose unpruned canes had condemned me every time I had walked outside since summer.  The hydrangea whose shape had gone from full to skeletal.  The hydrangea that, like everything else, had been coated with ice.

Sprouting from those ugly unpruned canes were buds.  Chartreuse green, sharp-tipped buds.  Living, hopeful buds.  Pushing through the darkness, dispelling the chaos with the promise of beauty yet to come. 

Southern Living says those buds will be blooms in late spring.  I’m not certain when that is, but I think I can hang on ‘til then.

Copyright 2014