I wake up thinking about Mount Ascutney. The time Jake and I went to its peak the long way, coming down in a soft rain, and not once seeing another person. I am in love always, and bound hard to memory’s sturdy drum, but I am also willing to look at what does not work and let it go. Bells ring, forever internal. While later, out walking after the sun has risen, we spook a few turkeys near the feeder pond and they walk slowly away from us, up into the spindly pine trees, for some reason unalarmed, and it makes me happy in a way that beer cans and lug nuts don’t. Violets all of a sudden, and an obsession with puddles in which the sky is reflected, somehow more real than anything else I know. Gravel hissing under our bike tires, our voices carrying on muddy back roads, talking about the characters in your favorite stories. How strange after so many years to be such a happy father, full of wordiness and activity. Days pass. I sleep on the couch for no reason other than to remember how much it hurts and also to remember those days in bus stations and park benches, when it really hurt and there was no end in sight and I was stupid enough to think it was something other than the booze. The first time I heard a harpsichord! Stumbling out around midnight to pee and studying the sky for hints of rain. Why can’t I remember her name now, the woman from Ireland who saw me through that difficult time, those weeks before I finally made it to Dublin and Bloomsday and drinking beer with Misha on rooftops while fiddlers worked the cobblestone four stories beneath us, the two of us trying to figure out what the Russians knew about fiction that we didn’t. Books piled so high on the dresser I can’t see myself in the mirror, though when I reach for Wittgenstein they all topple and there I am, looking tired as usual, but also amused. I said to her – this was years ago – I seem to need women, that’s all, and she said in reply, yes but why do you need them, that’s the real question. We played backgammon a lot, smoking and not talking, in a cafe whose name also escapes me. We dyed Easter eggs with tea and cranberries, we dreamed about parakeets, and we offered hungry kisses in an empty classroom, breathy and hot and scared. Something floats in around 3 a.m. and says “follow me” and I do and it’s okay, for a little while longer it’s okay. You look tired too! We pretend it’s about this when it’s really about that, and we pretend why we do it matters, when all that really matters is unhinging this love of which we are composed, and letting the song sing us, any old way it wants.
Rain at 2 a.m., compounding loss in a soft way, a commemorative way, until at last I rise and pad softly through the house putting on a jacket and pouring cold tea and going outside to walk.
Mist rising to meet the rain, which in the budding maple trees makes a hushed sound, like quilts being drawn, or pages being turned.
And the sweetness of it – the rain, the fog, the peepers singing between cattails – the loveliness of it – is bearable at last and one accepts it gratefully, alone.
And the copse of birch trees, all saplings yet, denoting purity, or something, for I stop always when I pass, as if the altar were temporarily removed from within and set just there to be admired, to be loved really, as if that were the lesson, which it is, nearly always.
Water boils for tea and I swallow a wall of text whole, again.
One works carefully in darkness out back, rearranging fallen gutters, filling feeders, smiling, not alone at all.
For she sleeps in the next room and reads whatever I give her, and it was she who brought me to the country of turtles and allowed me to build a small hut there, and she who comes so often at dusk to share the thin soup of my broken but aspirant love.
Sentences like thickets when what one longs for is the fox passing through the thickets, on fire and hungry, so hard to catch.
For a long time I thought women were the answer, and for even longer I thought it was whatever was hidden in books, but it turns out the answer was always just sentences, like this one, and the next one, and the one that went before.
And the nineteenth century is neither lost nor gone.
And the eighteenth century battens what is loose in me and gives welcome to shadows.
I am the one who loves the names of flowers more than the flowers, and often renames them in secret, in order to be as happy as possible.
All the way out to the fire pond, dim in the gaining light, the ripples of attentive beavers swimming reaching all the way to shore, and continuing beyond in a way that – as yet – defies my facility with language.
Cookies left over from Easter will be given later to the chickens, for whom such thanks is never not appropriate, nor unwelcome.
For a little while longer, the tea will taste different because it is not in my favorite mug, and for a little while longer I will continue to have a favorite mug, but soon . . .
I remember sheep in the hills facing Castletownbere, the blue and red swathes painted on their shaggy hides, and the way whiskey and cigarettes hit the back of my throat just so, and her kisses by the night fires we lit, and how she leaned into me after saying “just talk, I don’t care about what.”
And trains, and the distance they make possible, and the landscape thus emerging, and the need to bridge it somehow with words.
And the futility I face, day after day, night after night, of knowing wordiness is not enough, but having nothing else to offer, and so offering it over and over and over.
Oh and the apartment three stories up, across from the homeless shelter, where I first read Wendell Berry and struggled with zazen, and began to lose in a serious way the ability to sleep, and so took to walking at odd hours, rain or snow be damned, and the diner near the lake that opened at 3 a.m. and how I often stopped to order toast and coffee, all I could afford, and the waitress who said “you remind me of my son and not in a good way,” and how I literally left the city a week later and have not lived in one since.
And later how the rain spools across the window, just visible in gray light, the dog and I drying off on the bed, shivering but happy with all the apparently random trails before us, so silver, so flowing, and thus.
How cold the wind is, howling from North, bearing in rough spirals dead maple leaves disentombed, and reminding me of the old dream of a clear and impeccable tundra.
And rocks push the yet-frosty soil before them, and the down of old chickens tumbles this way and that towards the road.
And the daffodils and crocuses rise only uncertainly, and one’s dream of bluets withers as if winter were not a time but a condition to which one is now – is necessarily – inured.
And the man without shoes splashes happily through puddles in which the sky is briefly – silverishly – recalled.
And the pine trees splay their limbs and wave without semblance of pattern as if working toward balance, as if swimming through an invisible sea and its beautiful surging currents.
And how silly time is, and ideas of self, and yet how important to give attention to them, and resolve them, and carry their resolution forward so that others may learn too.
And birch trees.
And birch trees.
And my old friend anger coming out shyly near the great withered pine, bearing dented shotgun shells and riddled beer cans and a couple of dull bolts, and how fast he talks and how persuasively, and only after does one realize the paucity of his gifts, and the nature of all resistance.
And moss rising so brilliant and green it is as one’s first view of Ireland, and a thousand later subsequent views, especially the weeks on breezy hills facing Castletownbere across the bay, and the Welsh woman – nameless now – who lifted me those many days and nights beyond the cult of ancestry, thus allowing me to discover the Land of Ten Thousand Sentences.
And the church of regret, and the church of bliss, and the secret chapel beyond them both, hidden in a clearing, to which at last I know the way.
And hints in quartz, and in deer prints, and in fox scat and in sentences too for those who know how to look.
And possibility, and choice.
And the many filaments of relationship, all adrift in the fast-moving air, which is both Arctic and tropical, fern-like, and prayerful.
And the songs muttered by the man without shoes as he dances over the tops of rocks and climbs trees to see a little further into the light and tells stories about owl feathers found floating in the air and remembers a time when there was only this.
And sunlight creeping up the copper bark of so many pines, and the last patch of ice – treasured now four days straight – at last gone, and shadows with their blue hearts stretching away, always away.
And what is corruptible and what is not and what is still confused about the difference.
And the nature of starlight in the presence of the sun.
And I stand finally on the pond’s edge, another of the many fierce ripples bearing sunlight forward, and long to enter now the cold water and swim through it to the You the many youse represent.
How tempting as always to see problems as separate and in need of separate solutions. Thought is a process, a system, and not a series of distinct temporal events. What is measurable is measurable and no more. Meaning as use, indeed. Many birds at the feeder making me happy, or holding my interest anyway, as the moon finally appears to fall beyond the western horizon (rolling coniferous hills) into whatever west holds, being for me the least traveled of the four cardinal directions. One wakes up and in the middle of a long walk deep into the forest realizes they are walking in the forest and longs to write “the moon sat on my shoulder like a cat” but refuses, and for damn good reasons. What crashes in the underbrush and causes the dog to freeze rather than give chase gives me pause. Choiceless awareness presently held as a spiritual ideal, which is to say I’ve learned nothing at all. It is nice when grace attends but learning does not follow accordingly, and it is that form of undoing to which our attention is now directed. Trout undulating in currents just shy of freezing. Understand hunger and you understand the idea of Heaven. The big dipper tilts its black ladle and I laugh in the field heading home because the old cravings – for tea, for kisses, for words – go on without abatement, and because I’m still a little boy taking delight in his relationship with stars. Roosters give welcome and at the fire pond beavers whack the water with slick tails to warn me away. After all these years the only real kinship I know is with those who swim for all or part of their lives. I mean one who routinely indulges their proclivity for bullshit. The first thing you think when you wake up is “this is it!” and the second thing you think is, “seriously, this is it?” We discussed Michelangelo’s David as being unnecessary, and agreed it was only because you can’t eat it in an emergency. One pauses by the river just before dawn, which is in motion (the river and the dawn, of course, as well as the one watching), and whose parts – broadly speaking – are so minute and fluctional as to be – broadly speaking – one, and thus learns – or intuits in the direction of learning – that life is simply relationship (and movement, motion), and so understands – again intuitively (mostly) – why living is, for them, this way and at this time, so apparently complex and difficult. On the other hand, chickadees.
When you are sad and lonesome – when I perceive it so from the great divisive distance – I want to tell you we are neither alone nor separate but to do so would – paradoxically – only confirm the illusory isolation. Muscular geese beat ash-colored wings, passing overhead at dawn and dusk, and one thinks as always of the silvery wake they leave when landing in or taking off from the pond. In the morning you can finds rabbit track near the daffodils and picture them eyeballing the yellow moon which last night was a perfect circle, or so it seemed while walking south through the fields home. I remember years ago walking in the forest – tracking a moose well beyond the familiar landscape – and came to a stop realizing I stood at that moment in the same space the moose had occupied hours earlier. “We are all connected” presumes the fundamental divide, so it’s better say “there is no we” but that’s harder to hold in mind, isn’t it? When you are lonely and frightened and I perceive it so after so many decades and thousands of miles I want to embrace you even though to do so would be to violate the Holy Compact. She pads up and down the hall in slippers, a whispery sound, that neither quite ends nor begins without her prior consent. Blue skies beg flames and we divulge accordingly. My solitude is not perfect but nor I am unhappy in its muddled bounds. The running tally of goldfinches now in triple digits and one wonders – not for the last time surely – what the real value of any number is. The new call is to engage and participate and yet doing so begs a carapace, as if I am still that wounded child hiding in a barn wondering why so many blows fall and when the next is coming. She pulls close, she withdraws, but she is always within. The trail collapses – frosty caverns yielding to pressure – and my feet grow muddy and cold. I long to sleep – to sleep well – and yet insist on conflating spirituality with those hours that make sleep just about impossible. Well, we are all in motion, all following the proverbial goose, all settling as best we can the relevant scribbled maps. A coniferous divide to the west, and literary toll bridges and – critically – memories of a dead horse. When I want to hold you I do and it works, it does, but you have to trust yourself first. She wakes me a little after midnight, blankets opening to let in tuffets of cold, against which our bodies flare in the derivative way of Heaven recollecting itself. One reaches a place where there is nothing left but to accept the fundamental uselessness of language and go on without it. A little rain falls, a light breeze delivers clouds into the aging moonlight, and we rise in the early hours to write and pray and sing the way we do in the presence of the only love we need.
Who burnishes affection for certain words has found the chapel beyond the cross. A green world blooming. One by one we ascended the spiral and found our way into the light. The kids report an American Woodcock and I go out later to check. Hours on the highway, signs for Tennessee. It rained in Saint Louis and I walked for hours thinking the idea of you. I remember being drunk in church singing “Be Not Afraid” and the priest looking at me, highly irritated which – as was my wont in those days – made me sing louder. A cardinal foul. A belt made of glistening stars coming off and on every time she speaks. How gorgeous, how graceful. Will not scripture allow abatement? We beg the sodden world and blessings erupt accordingly. He walked a long time with his hands swinging, recalling certain gallows, assuaging guilt with movement, all he had ever learned to do. Be my rose petal, be my grim receiver. Dust behind us and before us fields of glass across which we will crawl weeping, begging her to forgive us. Abraham Lincoln’s hat, figure skaters wearing bow ties. My lips unfold and on them your name appears, kind of like a little cloud. A thousand grackles settle on the flowering dogwood tree and for no reason I think of cinnamon, as if the world were a kitchen, as if. Terror in a drum. We make arrangements and stick to them, considering the many folds of family.
Mist gives way to sunlight, a ready series of angles refracted. We are always ready, we are always singing. Beyond blue hills – hills the color of dust and yet voluble – the moon, pale as chalk, containing its own blue (as white must) and rising slowly. Graceful edges where we know each other happily. Bells rang, horses responded. We watched a cardinal work its way through the hedge rows, coming closer and closer to the corn crib. A little brook? When the sun shines we are relieved, suggesting that may be our default condition. A flicker works the dull grass beneath the pine tree. Our shadows precede us. She stood before the painting, gazing at her reflection in its glass, wondering who would be home when she returned. A little girl holding a milk pail, a little bandana to say this is where I am. We slipped beneath blankets and it was as certain stars followed. Marriage a cold light moving north in slow waves. You have to be willing, that’s all. Saints abound for those who have eyes to see. Biblical mercy easing out from under the piano. A ringlet of notes rose and fell, somewhat like rain in summer at dusk, and we identified the beloved. It is all according to plan.
What is measurable is not nothing. As the last illusion is choice. So long as there are alternatives, one is not committed. Yet alternatives exist. Don’t they? Don’t you? A pair of crows, flying not north but south, absolutely in Holyoke, flying low across the landscape, between budding maple trees, one slightly higher than the other and a bit behind so that at first I thought it was an attack, then a race. Then play? A certain level of silence attends, insisting as always on deepening. Beholden – be Buddhable – accordingly. We ford the river gently, as least we thought we did, but in fact it was entering a cinema in which old westerns were playing that mattered then. Historical narrative in which we appear, are implicated, even complicit. Cows appear in memory the same as crossing a field no longer pocked with melty snow and you wait for them, satisfied. My fingers trailed across the iron beams of their skulls, my thumb disappeared in their hungry mouths. Corn snakes the color of old tires coiled lazy beneath a moldy canvas tarp. Also bouquets! She stepped out from under the balustrade wearing black leather and it stopped him, it did, the way that she carried herself, shoulders slung back, head slightly turned to see up the rainy street, and how sleek she was altogether, and lovely too, as if the shadows themselves were no longer nameless. All results are possible then? We entered the chapel to celebrate her ordination, bearing tulips and wearing translucent veils and a song began, a familiar one. Behold the Massey-Ferguson.
North is tundra, north is light. North is not no, but yes, but yes differently, without opposition. North is that, that way. But not only. A landscape approached as if the center were everywhere, as if walking in it were itself sacred. That action, which is not activity. At the beginning, one longs to perceive the end, and at the end, perceives the middle, but in truth there is no beginning, middle or end, only perception. A way of saying center that matters. We go without a long time, we are sent back. Fox tracks crossing the last patch of snow then faintly perceptible in frosty mud then gone. At the beginning, one moves to find the beginning, or anything. It is a way of holding on. A way of holding one? We are always helpfully implicated. Melodies assume shape, become tassels, ribbons, the silken tendril of milkweed dander recalled in April when winter is not so distant. There is no “out of it” because there is no “it” to leave. On the other hand, lack. We are composed of abundance, forever composing. Two crows in Holyoke, one flying slightly below the other, both going North. A trail I can only just make out, not follow, not yet.
Yellow moon. Near the old feeder ponds, a deer spooks, thumping the ground as it bounds away, circling us to come up behind. At three a.m. one yawns walking but then is rushed by the familiar, the intensified clarity. Killdeer cry their plaintive cries. And stars – certain stars – are remembering they are stars and we support them with wishes and gazes.
Where are we? Clouds the color of ash move in from the North and light is interrupted accordingly. Conifers stay rooted to the same patch of soil all their lives, part of why my father cried when moving them. No wind nor even a breeze, so what rises, rises in place, and one perceives – in a sense – their location by smell. Spring is movement as winter was but the birds sing earlier.
The dog is waiting for me when I return, coming back through the village, shuttered houses, porch lights, unrequited dreams. The dim world is not brightened thusly. I know Worthington mostly in terms of its brooks and rivers, no one of which has escaped my attention, and I locate myself accordingly. Lovingly? An owl passed overhead, going back to its piney bower, silent so likely fed, briefly flashing in streams of moonlight.
Skeins of ice deck shallow puddles but the pond is thawed now, the beavers at work, their plashes and thwacks reverberating through the forest the closer I get. Old stories are nice, the ones that endure, because they too reverberate, and we know ourselves in the echoes. So much of what I do passes for effort and grief – still – and yet I stumble on, often happily. It is a marvelous world in which to learn the ways of Christ, the roadside maples dying to be our teachers, the daffodils repeating the same lesson year after year for the benefit of those who give attention. Halfway out I come back, same as always, home.