Monday, April 20, 2015
Just past the shed, along what would be a fencerow if there was a fence, the field lies flat and even. Not like a pane of glass, but like a table covered in a cloth smoothed by hands smelling of dish soap and lotion, with vague and uneven undulations that beg to be smoothed. Cut over and harrowed, it holds no sign of what grew there last year or the year before or the decades of years before.
From the front porch the readied field stretches to the stand of pines that borders Jackson Branch Swamp. From the back deck the land rises and falls toward the big pond. From the kitchen window I can see clear to the property line. An unobstructed view in every direction. The landscape is beautifully empty.
This time of year, these days of eager patience, is the target toward which I aim in the darkness and wetness and coldness of winter. This time of year, this trembling interlude, is what holds my feet to this patch of dirt through breathtaking heat. I want to pause the earth in its orbit. Stay, I would command. Remain in this moment, this balmy and pleasant and hopeful moment.
Within days, though, tractors pulling planters will be interrupting the silence, rattling across the flatness creating furrows, inserting seeds. The interlude will be over and the counting will begin. Ten to twelve days for corn to break the surface, for the green spikes to pierce the crusty topsoil like a knife through pound cake. Then ninety to a hundred days to maturity, to fat yellow kernels that push up against each other in long rows. And then fourteen more days before the combine will roll down rows of stalks gone brown and papery to rip the cobs from the stalks to toss and shuck and shell in an amazing show of mechanization.
Counting. Always counting.
It is one of the first things we are taught. “One, two, three,” we recite to our babies and urge them to repeat, applauding madly when they do. We learn new languages and begin with the numbers. Uno, dos, tres. Un, deux, trois. Eins, zwei, drei. And as soon as we learn the cardinals it is but a short leap to the ordinals – first and second and third – because we must be able to not only enumerate and quantify, but also rank. First. Biggest. Longest. Fastest. Best.
There is, though, another side to counting. We proclaim, “That counts.” when we wish to convey significance or “That doesn’t count.” when we wish to deny legitimacy. Neither has anything at all to do with numbers, ordinal or cardinal, but rather with meaning and value. It transforms the objective and impersonal to the subjective and oh so personal. It moves the process of evaluation from the head to the heart.
I have watched forty years of green sprouts twist and turn their way up into daylight and heard forty years of wind whistle through dry stalks. I have smelled forty years of diesel fuel puff black into the blue sky and felt forty years of damp earth on my bare feet after a prayed-for rain. And, though I have never crossed off the boxes on a John Deere calendar tacked to the wall or made a notation in a fat yellow notebook I keep in my shirt pocket, I have counted.
I have counted because I chose to make this place my home. I chose to plant my feet and my heart in this place from which I can see farther than just the pines and the pond and the land line. From this place, I can see the cardinal and the ordinal, the sun and the moon, the past and the future, everything there is to see.
Sunday, April 05, 2015
Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, his shoulder fits into the hollow of my side and the loop of my arm conforms to the back of his neck. Exactly. Perfectly. I have to tilt my chin only slightly to rest it on the blonde head, to draw in the scent of little boy. One chair, the two of us.
He has brought me a stack of books, books carefully chosen from the shelves in the guest room. Others were pulled out, opened, and pushed back in with a peremptory, “Too much words.” These, the ones about the wombat, the caterpillar, and the goose, apparently have just the right ratio of words to pictures. Who knew?
The first one we will read is Petunia, the one about the goose. The plot goes something like this: Petunia finds a book in the meadow and because she has seen the little boy who lives on the farm taking a book to school and has heard his father say, “He who owns Books and loves them is wise,” Petunia anoints herself the barnyard sage and sets about addressing all the other animals’ problems. Addressing them, not solving them, for whatever Petunia suggests only makes the situations worse. Eventually Petunia figures out that it takes more than owning a book or carrying it around to make a person, or a goose, wise.
Jackson likes Petunia especially, I think, not because at four years old he understands the message, but because of the voices. I make Petunia sound like a Southern grandma. The horse sounds like Mr. Ed and the cow sounds like Elsie. The dog barks out his every word and the rooster cocka-doodle-do’s his. I love that I can make him laugh. I love that he balls his little hands into fists and draws them up to his face and hunches his shoulders as though trying to contain something combustible.
So here we are, settled in and ready. Jackson lifts the cover and folds it back. I wait for him to turn the first page, but he stops. He is looking at the inscription written on the frontispiece, the inscription written by the mother of the little girl, now a teenager, who gave me Petunia. “To the one who has taught me that opening the books is what is most important.”
Opening the book. Not owning the book. Not carrying it around. It is the lesson that Petunia ultimately learns, but only after spreading misinformation and bad advice all over the barnyard and, in the end, nearly blowing up all her friends by mistaking dynamite for candy.
I start reading. I do all the voices. I keep my arm tucked close around this little person who carries some of my very DNA. But I am simultaneously wondering about that inscription. I am asking myself a question. Have I really done that for which my friend gave me credit? Have I really demonstrated to the people I love, all of them, that what we own, what we carry can never be the measure of what we know? That it is only by letting ourselves be opened, only by allowing our spines to be cracked, our pages turned down, our margins scribbled upon that we become wise? That we learn to distinguish dynamite from candy?
I can't know. Not for sure.
“The end,” I say, closing the back cover on Petunia and her new-found wisdom.
“Now this one.” Jackson pulls the caterpillar book from the stack and hands it over to me. I can't know, but he does. He trusts me to know what to do with a book.