21 January 2015

Swan in Winter

A dozen spans or thereabouts she stood offshore, this wistful cygnet with my eyes and her mother's hair. Her shadow lay lightly on the ice. Ice which I studied closely for the first signs of cracks. My belly tightened at the thought of her in the freezing green-black water of the pond. My anxiety served as reinforcement for its frozen surface. She sensed my discomfort, I think, looking up at me with grin as antidote to fear. I smiled in return. Sunshine like white gold broke through a mottled pewter sky to illuminate us, a living page from our own Book of Hours. 

The sky returned to a sullen indifference. The slow clouds of midwinter marbled like bruises over a snippets of bright blue. A hush was over the pond, disturbed now and then by the barking of dogs, children frolicking or ragged chevrons of Canadian geese knifing through the cold air above. Water oozed through the grass from soil still reeling from a few hard freezes. My thoughts drifted briefly to permafrost, and what happens when it thaws. I needed to know if similar processes affected the heart in the same manner. I must know, as something seemed to be cracking in my chest. 

"Daddy, what's that?"

Her question a soft whipcrack snapping me out of arctic ruminations. She was standing on a dark patch shaped like a lumpy oval. My first thought was it was weak ice, but she stood firm. The shape crystallized in my mind. 

"It looks like a tree stump, sweet pea." I hoped that it was. Weird that it was a level cut stump only a fraction of an inch below the ice line. 

"I wonder if that's it," she said. She bent down to pick up one of the many small rocks littering the ice. The impacts of the stones a webbed chiaroscuro crazing the frozen pond. Kneeling, my daughter began to dig at the ice over the stump. It cracked a little but did not move. She knitted her brow, lips scrunched in vexation. I could not help but smile to know that by such gestures she was indeed of my blood. Sometimes she is driven by a compulsion to know that which is beneath the surface, to firmly possess certainty. In the space of a few fluttery heartbeats, I prayed that she would not be as destructive in pursuit of that certainty as I had sometimes been in the past. The past when I was young and needed to know everything, but knew nothing. 

Her mittened hands rested briefly on the ice. She studied the shape, cocking her head. Her gaze and posture reminded me so much of a heron stalking a frog I nearly burst out laughing. She must have decided that it was not important enough to continue, as she levered herself up to stand on the stump. I heard the clicking of pebbles and ice as she nudged the fragments with the toe of her right boot. She moved as if skating for a few more minutes. I stifled my urge to tell her again she was far enough out on the ice. With an avian hop, she came back to shore. 

"Walk some more, kiddo?" I asked with a raspy warble in my voice making me cough. She turned her face to me, cheeks rosy in the cool breeze.

"Sure, Daddy." Hop. Skip. Away she fluttered ahead of me, down the trail that ran along the river. Clouds mimed a slow semaphore shining on her performance while she gleefully leaped into a pile of slush on the trail side. 

She grows, this nascent swan of my heart. Taller, more winsome, as months and years fall like leaves. Winter has its hold on my brittle heart, enrobed in a thin glaze of frost that I begin to feel melt in the innocent warmth of her presence. The old man of my soul knows this is the progress of life. He knows that growth is inevitable, as is love and the thaw. We watch her amble and cavort under a nave of trees, wondering when she will break the ice. Hoping that we witness the glorious transformation when the swan makes it back to shore, to fly into spring.

14 January 2015

Islands Adrift

Yesterday I learned that an old high school friend had died at the age of 47, of heart disease.  It was delivered to me by a cousin of my friend, who just happens to be my best friend from college. Such news hurt me sharply, hotly, and more than to be expected regarding someone with whom I had not spoken in decades. Today, my impatience showed when I failed to let the pan get hot enough before deglazing the onions with a shot of red wine. It was dinner, and I was sad and angry.

How to reconcile Death with pork ragu over pasta? Is this possible? My belly did not care. Hunger is its imperative. My soul, on the other hand, disagreed. I wept into my fist.

Hunger will not be denied. Nor will sadness. It is a peculiarity of my being that I am ever hungry unless I am deeply ill or otherwise disturbed to the point of collapse. The news of my friend's death pushed me to that edge. Yesterday, I wept over my keyboard, feeling simultaneously ashamed and indignant that I was reduced to such a state. There was no denying that my friend  and I had drifted far apart over the past two decades. No communications had been had in the intervening years, notwithstanding the ease and facility of Facebook, Twitter and myriad other digital ways to find and connect. Perhaps it was partly that shock of realization that fueled my outburst at the stove tonight.

My friend had married, he had moved to Mississippi, he had become the owner of a country store. I was unaware of none of these facts of his existence. It seemed an impossible task to reconcile all this lost history with making dinner. Perhaps I really should not have tried. I was tired and sad and the walls between my day and my heart were breaking down. I thought back to the wakes I have known in my life, those impossibly strained gatherings where we met at the houses of the deceased or their family, and loved ones and strangers show up bearing platters of fried chicken, lasagna, potato salad and anything else grieving souls can think to pull together to succor those who have lost the most. Death takes its pound of flesh, and we can think of nothing but conversation and filling our bellies.

Then there was me, standing at the stove stirring a skillet full of sauce while waiting for the pasta to be done. Wiping my eyes, I had to grin thinking of my old friend. I knew perfectly well that he would not have tolerated any bullshit from me on this matter. He was a bright spirit with a world-class sense of humor. I heard his voice in my head, saying "Quit yer bitchin', you damn dumb Irishman, and shut up and eat!" In his honor, I complied. Even if the soul is empty, the belly must be filled.

Nearly fifty years on this planet, and time showed me just how far we may drift apart on the oceans of our lives. But I know, I know, how deep the currents run and how far they reach. The soul feels it when a part of its past departs this world. Currents of the heart pull and shift, and we feel the disturbance keenly across time and miles.

In memory of F.C., my friend. Good luck and godspeed.






03 January 2015

Belly Without Name

Field notes, 6:07 PM. Dinner in a Greek restaurant that shall remain nameless.

It is cold this night. A prediction of rain, sleet, freezing rain and most likely snow. I am perched on a high seat at a two-person table alongside a wall of windows looking out upon a nondescript four-way intersection. As I tuck into a gyro plate and green salad I realize how fitting it is that the root for the word 'anonymous' is Greek in origin. The word is anonumous, 'nameless'. That is the word for which my belly was searching, and with which it fills. 

I eat at this establishment on a semi-regular basis. Not because the food, which is Greek in origin and concept, is necessarily the best exemplar to be had around these parts. There are other restaurants that do certain items better, so much better that their relative lack of atmosphere (dive-ishness, even) is offset by the deliciousness of the food.  The food is good enough. On the days I eat here, it gives me what I want: comfort without identity.

It is this shade of anonymity that I discovered is part of the appeal for me. Lately when I dine here, I dine alone. Usually at the end of work day when circumstance has decreed that I will not have a companion for dinner. I make the decision as I am driving out of the parking lot at work, when hunger, fatigue and proximity act as the trade winds which blow my vessel a few blocks down the street. I set that course because it involves no mystery and few decisions.

When I walk through the storefront doors, there is no "where everybody knows your name" kind of moment. No nodding of heads, no shouted greetings, only a (usually) short line which I join and quickly scan the menu. Since I am still a relative newcomer in this area, there is no one who knows me. No one I recognize. Perhaps the counter people have a vague recollection that I have been in before. Something along the lines of "It's that bearded fellow who always orders the same thing".

I place my order, they give me my number, I sip tea while waiting. The place is quickly filling up with diners and take-away customers. I see a lot of kids and senior citizens, families, couples, one guy like me. All sitting and waiting for our number to be called.

When it is, I take my tray and grab a seat on the edge of the dining room. Always the edge. I have never liked being in the middle of rooms or crowds, from school to restaurants to concerts. The edges make it easier for me to relax and observe. Plus, lower probability of social interaction, which is something I am less than graceful at even when I am not tired and hungry.

I sit. I slowly begin to eat. The hubbub of voices surrounds me, but does not overwhelm. A stream of voices that blend into a rhythmic drone, out which pops the occasional recognizable word or even phrase. In the corners of the room, two large televisions are playing a repeating loop of travel videography from the Greek isles. In the occasional lull of conversation, you can hear snippets of bouzoukis playing. In conjunction with the lack of captions or subtitles on the video, the sounds are an odd blend amplifying the 'namelessness' of this dining experience. 

I find it oddly soothing. I feel this way almost every time I come here. This does not bother me, because it is what I want, maybe need. Neither myself nor my fellow diners have an imperative to make this place an extension of their living room or front yard or residential community. The primary imperative for all of us is our bellies, and the need to fill them.

I finish up. With nowhere to be and nothing obligating me to move, I sit quietly. Ruminating on the meal, I am at ease for at least a few minutes. The dining room hums along oblivious to my presence, and that suits me just fine. For a few precious moments my belly and I have nowhere to be, no one to satisfy, no obligations to fulfill. Myself, my belly, we are nameless. We are content.




31 December 2014

To Feast Upon the Wisdom Fish

I awoke on the last morning of the year to a cloak of tepid December air and the hope that today I might find wisdom. The high breezes of the night before had scampered off, leaving the headland in quiet broken only by effervescent mutterings of the surf. I could hear them curling though the open window next to my bed. A gentle puff of air caressed my face. With it came the saline tang of seawater, undergirded by iodine and fish.

The hearth was barely warm. A fire of modest proportions I had lit the prior evening. Not much required between the unusually warm weather and the two fingers of single malt I had allotted myself for the night. Warmth, indeed.

My pens and notebook lay upon the table where I left them. In the white gold sunlight, silent and patient. Sitting up enabled me to see the scratchings on the pages, redactive testament to the autumnal fallowness of my mind. Sighing, scratching my head, I rolled out of bed before inertia could drag me back down. I closed the notebook as I made my way to the toilet.

I realized I should be hungry. Winter light has a vampiric beauty at times. Days leading to the solstice draining the very iron from the blood in my veins. This last day of the year, my belly is neither hot nor cold. It just is. Melancholy grips me at the memory of hunger, the lost clarity of ravenousness. In such a state of mind, eating had an air of penance about it.

But eat I would. I reminded myself that a full belly is not the sole arbiter of happiness, but goes a long way towards comfort. Three rashers of bacon and the last egg in the larder gave me a breakfast of Cartesian precision. Swallowing the last morsel made certain I would be heading to town soon, a journey of mixed emotions. I needed food, not company.

Not today. Not this morning. Standing on the porch sipping the last of the cold tea and fidgeting with the lighter in my pocket, the waves convinced me a long walk was in order. I struck off southward along the strand.

Under a cerulean sky thready with horse mane clouds I walked for what seemed miles. The sea lay subdued, languid iron-green breakers diffusing themselves along the olive-tinged strand. Odd, this hushed tone on the day. Manannán himself perhaps felt the tendrils of winter, muffling his voice here by the sea.

The quiet filled me with wonder and unease. The sea out here by the headland was normally restless, quite vocal. I think it, like me, awoke at the end of the year holding its breath, husbanding its energy. Was Manannán there? I paused to look out past a line of rocks. There was motion, I thought. Not sea gods but seals. Or selkies.

I drew a deep breath and started on. The sun rose in its slow degrees. A few minutes of arc later and I arrived at the mouth of a stream. It slithered over peat and rock to diffuse itself into tide pools before the sea. The tide was ebbing. The rocks a few yards away beckoned. Festooned with seaweed and samphire, encrusted with salt above the tide line, I often used the rocks as an impromptu seiza, my meditation bench on those days when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk. Climbing up, I sat. Sun inched its way up the bowl of the sky. I absent-mindedly pulled the lighter from my jacket pocket, flicking it open and shut with unconscious rhythm. I dissolved into the sea.

The waves. Unctuous flow of gelid green water. I float on my back underwater looking up at a quavering spot of light that I took to be the sun. Kelp wrapped my limbs in buttery bands. I did not feel I was drowning. I slept under the gaze of fishes and a pair of stern looking eyes watching me from a distance. Their refulgent opalescence lit me with a nimbus of pale green.

Minutes? Hours? When I awoke no idea what had passed, although the sun had moved little, it seemed. Thirst and hunger gnawed my belly. It may have been the ache in my legs what woke me up. I stretched and yawned. Manannán faded from my head. I stood up to return home. Stepping off the rocks, I splashed my way through a shallow pool. The pool breathed.

I stopped, not wanting to tread further. Water heaved and swirled at my feet. The billowing water resolved itself into a large fish which I took to be a salmon if my amateur ichthyological skills were of any value. It was trapped in the pool. I was agape. I considered carrying the hapless fish back to the sea. My belly made its hunger known again.

The last day of the year, and I stared down at the fish, wondering what to do. The wind had picked up. In it, my ears heard what may have been the hiss of sand. But my heart heard the ghost of Fionn Mac Cumhal, urging me to take the salmon, and eat. I gave in to the imperative, wrapping the fish in fronds of kelp. It struggled briefly but clearly was not much longer for the world. I started towards home.

The wisdom Fionn gained from his Salmon of Knowledge may not be mine to have in the coming days of the new year, but I sure hoped it so. It is the last day of this one, and if I would not be wise at least I would not be hungry. So said the sea.