In a Time of Darkness

Words come hard in a time of darkness.
Language has been taken over, sentences, hijacked.
People try to remember, they try to form the sounds but all turns to sand and ashes in their mouths.
They spit, and get along to work.

The only ones immune are the children and those in great distress:
Mourners, seekers, the love-gripped.
Their voices still vibrate with the power of their emotion, true emotion,
Separate and distinct from the men shouting and posturing on the screens,
Boasting, spouting platitudes,
Promising retribution, bread and five-year plans.

The human heart:

It sees without eyes, so the screens can’t contain it.
It hears beyond words, so the tarnished promises and the whetted lies don’t fool it.
It still knows the presence of another, a hand in a hand,
Feels the shadow of a bird passing overhead and the sound of water running down a hillside.

The artists and the very young stand singing in a field. And like sunflowers, all heads turn their way.

Nancy Squires January 2017

Hydrology

I remember some years ago reading a news item about two elderly brothers. They hadn’t spoken to each other in years, some rift or other had opened up and then time and geographic distance had taken over. Then one brother heard the other was sick, and decided he had to take action. He couldn’t drive a car anymore. So he got on his riding mower and drove the entire way along the shoulder, at five miles an hour. For 240 miles.  (He did at last see his brother, who, happily, recovered.)

I like to believe in happy endings like that—that things can be made right, or at least, improved. For reasons both personal and political, it seems hard right now to have faith in those kinds of sunny outcomes, to believe that there is still time for people and events to change course and start heading towards higher ground. I’m not even sure I can see higher ground, sometimes.

But then again, maybe I don’t have to.

This morning as the sun came up and I was gazing out the slider and saw the bright day beginning I thought of spring. Far off, I know; but the light is already changing, growing stronger. Thinking of spring makes me think of the cottage, and the North Country in general. I thought of the thaw, the movement of water, the Great Lakes stirring to motion again. Coming alive (at least, as I experience them—they’re dynamic in ways I don’t see even when they’re covered in ice.)

I was suddenly back at Pictured Rocks, where we went backpacking two summers ago. I could see the emerald water at the foot of the cliffs along which we hiked. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world, the green of Lake Superior. I thought of the small pines and firs that cling there at the cliff’s edge. I thought of rain—a drop of water coming down, cascading over the rock and into the basin: a raindrop becoming part of Lake Superior.

I’ve read a tiny bit about the hydrology of the Great Lakes. I know that water falling into Lake Superior will stay there nearly 200 years before it moves on: through the St. Marys River, out to Lakes Michigan and Huron. Those lakes too have a retention time (less than Superior; Michigan’s is some sixty years) before water flows from them into Lake St. Clair and then Lake Erie. Eventually through the Niagara River, and over the Falls. Into Lake Ontario and one day, out to the Atlantic Ocean.

A journey of a thousand miles and hundreds of years.

As I say, I’ve been feeling bereft and discouraged lately. The happy outcomes seem far away; maybe, I fear, some of them are unattainable. But thinking of the travel of that glass-green water, the slow, meandering journey it takes—somehow, it made me feel better. Things happen, are happening, without my knowing. There are timetables that don’t calibrate to my life, or any human being’s.

We do the best we can, or try to. Sometimes we see the happy ending. But even if we don’t, the waters are moving. I’ve stood beside the magnificence of Niagara Falls many times. Next time I’m there I hope I remember that the water roaring over the escarpment was circulating in Lake Superior before my great-great grandparents were born.

I am impatient for the happy endings, to have everything righted, resolved and stowed away. But perhaps the trick is patience after all.

Some journeys take a long, long time.

 

The Dance

Sally’s mom, Jeanette, is in an Alzheimer’s residence. They call it “memory care.” Not a bad name, if you think of it as a place where memories—however we experience them—are prominent. No one here lives, exactly, in our time. But then, time is an elusive concept, anyway. Take it from no less a great thinker than Albert Einstein: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” I know he was speaking as a physicist. Still…

At memory care, we often have to take things as we find them. It does not come naturally to me, to operate this way. In our ordinary lives, most of the time, we focus on what we are going to do—that stack of papers we are going to get through, the project we’re going to finish, a room that will be vacuumed. We are going to do the paperwork, the shopping or the laundry, change something by our effort and concentration.

Memory care is not like that.

I learned this with my own father, during his last illnesses: Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. I focused a lot on his clothes, his medications, his therapy regime, the objects in his room—trying to get it right. After a while I realized I couldn’t make anything turn out a certain way. This wasn’t a ship to be righted. The best I could do was give my presence. After all, when we’re with people who will soon be leaving us, what else do we have to give?

***

The day after Thanksgiving, we’ve come to see Jeanette. She’s dozing in her wheelchair, parked in front of the TV in the common room. There’s no movie playing today, just messages scrolling across the screen; public service, I guess, I don’t stop to read them. Soft jazz, sonorous and soothing, is playing over the speakers.

We were here yesterday, and Jeanette was tired then, too. We didn’t stay long. I scared her when I pulled her sneaker off (her shoes were on the wrong feet). I’d loosened it first but it caught a little on her heel and when I pulled on it she must have been startled, she called out and swore. I felt awful, even though I know it’s nothing personal. Sometimes, when she’s really scared or stressed, she tells the caregivers she hates them. When they finish whatever they’re doing, moving her or bathing her, and she’s calmer, they check in. I love you, one of them will say. We ok? You love me?

And Jeanette says yes.

Today not only Jeanette but nearly everyone’s dozing. I see Tom, the wanderer, sleeping in a recliner in the corner. He’s usually up and about, talking about his dad and/or fishing. He’s like an explorer, nosing into every nook and corner of the place. He often sets off the alarm, pushing on the door that goes to the hallway. Yesterday the aides had to shoo him out of the little kitchen that appears to be for resident activities although I haven’t actually seen it in use. Sally said she saw him looking in the fridge. Of course, I said, the Lions game is coming on. He’s probably looking for a beer.

Today we find some space in one corner, and a woman sitting on a sofa there motions me to sit down beside her. Sally moves Jeanette’s chair closer and sits kitty-corner from me on a vacant loveseat. Jeanette wakes briefly, roused by being moved, then goes back under.

In contrast, our new friend is talkative. She tells me she used to teach dance. In fact, she says, she was teaching everybody to dance yesterday. “No wonder everyone is so tired,” I comment. She goes on. “Have you ever danced the Charleston?” No, Sally and I tell her, we don’t think we have.

“It’s easy,” she says; she’s taught little children the Charleston. She used to take care of little kids and they started calling her Mama. She prattles on, in a soft accent; sounds like possibly Tennessee, to me. She tells us about another dance, the Hippo. Then she’s back to her favorite.

“Do you know how to dance the Charleston?” she asks again. No, I say, but it looks like it would be fun. Now she’s focused on her eyeglasses—they’re smudged, she wonders if she has something to wipe them with. She looks in the compartment under the seat of her walker, in front of her. “Well all I’ve got is this big one,” she says, pulling out one of the cloth napkins from the dining room. We smile. She puts it back. Starts searching in the purse in her lap.

“Oh lordy what’s in here,” she exclaims and scoops out what appears to be a handful of jewelry, I see silver and maybe a rhinestone or two, then she puts it back. “I don’t know what that is,” she declares. She finds a tissue, wipes her glasses. I notice it takes her a very long time to zip up the purse, I watch her fumble with it. I’m not sure if she can’t see, or if she doesn’t quite comprehend how it works. I notice the big silver cuff bracelet on her near wrist. “I like your bracelet,” I say, and she shows me she’s wearing one on her other wrist, too. She’s also wearing two old-fashioned ladies’ watches, the kind with tiny faces and stretchy bands, one on each arm.

There’s some activity around us as lunchtime approaches, the caregivers are beginning to get people ready to go to the dining room. Jim, one of the med techs, comes over. “I’ve got some medicine for you,” he tells our new acquaintance, then dabs some ointment on her ear. After he walks off she tells me, “I used to carry him around when he was a baby.” I think, I can understand why she believes that. He’s kind and helpful. He must feel to her like a son.

The commotion ramping up is bringing people to. Jeanette stirs and opens her eyes. I’ve been noticing lately what a pale blue they are. Sally fills her in on family news. She seems interested, smiles and reminisces with us. “I remember a picture of you giving Kim (her oldest grandkid, now grown) a bath in a lobster pot, at the Jersey shore,” Sally tells her. I laugh. “That’s funny,” I say. Jeanette is all smiles. She seems to remember. In any case, she is happy to hear about family.

Beside me our new friend pipes up again. “I’m so sleepy,” she says, “I could take a nap right here.”

“It’s almost lunchtime,” I say. “Maybe after lunch…”

“I used to teach dance,” she says. “Do you know how to dance the Charleston?”

No, I say, and then ask Jeanette: “Have you ever danced the Charleston?”

She doesn’t think so. Then lunch is being served, and we stand up to wheel Jeanette off to her table.

“You two stay out of trouble,” the woman on the sofa says. We tell her we’ll try.

We get Jeanette situated at the table, with her napkin and her silverware and one of the fancy bibs they provide here (they’re big and soft, chocolate-brown velour). Despite being tired, she tucks into her soup without a problem. She often tells me that she’s always ready to eat, and it seems to be true. Her other great pleasure is music. Sometimes we put CDs on for her, she likes old classics like Frank Sinatra (he’s a nice man, she said of Frank the other day). She sings along, knows the words to every song. From memory.

We leave Jeanette to her lunch and go down the hall to her room to check on things, water the plant, see if she’s out of anything, toothpaste or socks. On our way back to the dining room we cut through the big space where the staff holds activities: sing-alongs, crafts, trivia. On the wall beside the French doors into the courtyard there’s a large poster, “The Give Thanks Tree.” There are individual leaves stuck to the tree, each with a resident’s name inked on it and what they’re thankful for. I start reading them; there are quite a few that say “Friends and family.” One says “Kathleen”—she’s the activities director. And then another catches my eye: “The Charleston.” Signed, Elizabeth.

“We know who wrote that,” I say to Sally, and we chuckle.

As I said, there is much at memory care that we will have to take just as we find it. A few days later Sally reports that she sat down beside her mom’s wheelchair on one end of a sofa, noticing Elizabeth seated at the other end. “Don’t sit on me,” Elizabeth said to Sally, and moved to a chair farther away. Not having a good day, she had no desire to talk—not even about dancing. What constellation happened, what forces aligned to allow us to chat with her the day after Thanksgiving? We don’t know. We never will. But for half an hour, we were in Elizabeth’s living room, having a visit. We were guests, in her home, in her memories.

I have never danced it. Perhaps I never will. But even so, I think that I too am grateful for the Charleston.

 

 

 

The Dream

Last night, I dreamed I was up north, riding in a car, my dad driving. I looked out to see a huge full moon, blazing over the water. We drove along the road behind the houses; a man stood beside his mailbox, a small deer resting on his shoulders–like a shepherd with a lamb. There was snow on the ground, just a little.

I wonder if I can stay here tonight, I thought, because I so wanted to, as we went on towards the cottage. My parents must have heat, I thought…

Even as the cottage sits dark and shuttered, all closed up, the pipes drained and empty, the lawn chairs and kayaks put away, I dream that my dad is taking me there, along a moon-drenched coast where deer come out to forage in the snow.

Perhaps he is ferrying me away from all the ugliness of the election just passed. Neither of my parents were political people, didn’t talk about it much, weren’t activists. Always voted, but didn’t say much about who for. Even so, I am pretty sure they consistently voted Republican. This election, though, I feel certain my mother, at least, would not have. The pussy-grabbing thing—that would have been a deal-breaker.

Did they read much about politics? I doubt it. Just the local paper. We got the News—the Republican paper; Detroit’s other paper, the Free Press, leans Democrat. I seem to remember Time magazine in the house sometimes; my grandfather got U.S. News. Did my parents make mistakes, voting? Surely they must have. They probably voted for Nixon. Of course, not everyone would consider that a mistake.

Some of my parents’ political silence was due to their personalities, and their beliefs—that privacy and manners demanded one didn’t discuss politics, much less rant about them. But some of it was also their status. We were comfortable, white, middle-class (just barely, I guess; my dad had a technical job, was not a manager, and we were a single-income family). He worked at General Motors: in the 1960s, the largest corporation in the world. We had blue-chip health insurance. He had a job, always. That kind of security has gone away, for so many people.

I know it wasn’t really a simpler, happier time, my childhood. There was plenty of ugliness to see, if you were looking. The civil rights struggle, the firehoses and snarling police dogs, the hate. The murders of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. Vietnam.

But I was a child through most of that. Now my responsibilities, and my awareness, and my responsibility to be aware, are so much bigger. Right now, they seem overwhelming. I have a sense of disorientation that hit me the morning after the election. The streets and cars and autumn-tinged trees looked the same, driving into work, but I couldn’t stop wondering: Where am I?

This writing is not a paean to the “good old days” of my childhood. I know I was sheltered and privileged, when others were not. I am just trying to make sense of this age of tumult and storm. There seems no center, and as everything becomes shakier, the electronics all around us amplify our fear and shout it back at us. They are not all unfounded, our fears; but in this maelstrom of political porn and screaming headlines (many of which are barefaced lies), attack and counterattack without even the space to breathe much less think, we have created scapegoats. We have bought into lies.

That dream last night, of being a child driven along the road to the cottage by my father—I think now that rather than taking me away he is taking me toward something. A world and a reality beyond this ocean of talking points, made-up, ugly stories that people are gobbling up like candy, editorials that verge on the obscene (yes, I do mean Breitbart). Or maybe he is taking me to the place where I feel most connected to the earth, our planet—now more than ever in need of protection.

It’s what most people want, I think, regardless of your color, origin, gender or sexuality. To be in a place where you feel centered, and whole. To be home.

I was almost there, in my dream last night. And wondered: Will I be able to stay?

 

 

Spirits

When we arrived at the cottage, unlocked the door and went inside, it was icy—colder than the air outside, which was somewhere in the 40s. I opened windows, and then we went to work cleaning the wasps’ nest out of the furnace vent. When that was done we lit the pilot and turned on the heat; a couple of hours later, Sally got a fire going, too. But even then, when I opened a cupboard door or kitchen drawer a blast of cold air hit me—as if the silverware was in cold storage.

I found it shocking, that pent-up cold. We sat on the beach for a while as a glimmer of sun got swallowed in cloud. I stayed there for some time, listening to the waves. They seem to me more hypnotic as winter approaches; perhaps my heart knows that the big freeze is about to still their music. When I finally went back up to the cottage, Sally was bundled up and sitting on the porch and it was still cool, inside.

I felt chilled, and turned up the furnace. Then poured myself a glass of wine and sat, at the north window by the desk where the angle was right to see out and down the Bay, southwest where the sunset travels this late in the year. I’d popped a CD in first—Dave Brubeck—and as the sounds of piano and sax in a classic, bouncy dance filled my ears I gazed out at a fiery orange strip beyond the water, glowing hot beneath dark, smoke-blue cloud. Sally came in for a minute, and we talked about how we might orient a new place, if we ever build one, to catch the south-moving light.

She went back out, wanting the fresh air, and I sat, feeling for a moment what it was, to be there, watching the sunset way down the Bay from the picture window; the city-born sounds of jazz in the room. Harmony, it felt like. I sipped, and became more cosmopolitan by the minute. I pictured a wall of windows, the fireplace moved from in front to a different wall, or maybe replaced entirely with an efficient woodstove.

But the next night after chores and dinner when I had built a good, blazing fire and we were reclining before it, listening to the World Series on the radio, I felt I needed the fireplace. The tongs, when Sally replaced them on the stand after adding a log, swung for long minutes—look, they’re still going, she said. I said, well, it’s like a pendulum; but she thought it might be a ghost—the same one who earlier lofted a wooden spoon out of the drainer and flung it with a bang to the kitchen floor. Who was trying to tell us something? We didn’t know.

But it was nearly Halloween, and All Hallows Day; nearly Samhain, the pagan version of the holiday, a time when it’s believed that the barriers between worlds becomes thin and permeable and spirits can move easily back and forth.

I can’t say if any of it’s true. But the tongs, swinging on, made us wonder, and led me to reflect. They were a gift from my grandparents when my parents built the cottage, in 1958: the fireplace implements, and probably the screen that stands on the hearth, too.

Now, I love that screen; it looks so old and traditional, it gives me the feeling that I may have just wandered into a cottage some centuries ago to find a fire crackling on the hearth. It’s in good shape, too, no holes in its wire mesh, its simple, classic lines (hammered metal) unbent and unblemished. “You’d have a hard time finding a screen like that today,” I said, and Sally agreed, as the tongs, finally, came to rest.

As I’m writing I wonder: Is it a ghost that haunts me? Or just the notion that the past must be enshrined somehow, because without it I am a lost soul, set to wandering in a world I can’t fully belong to? Come to think of it, even Dave Brubeck’s music is antique, these days.

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I just go on, building fires, gazing through the screen and wondering if I could ever do without it. And listening, just in case the spirits do speak.

Nancy Squires, October 2016

Riding

Recently, I watched a video a friend posted to Facebook. The narration was in Dutch, I think; I watched the entire thing in silence, with short subtitles. An elderly woman, sitting in a wheelchair, looking frail and ill (the slackness of her face made me think she had Parkinson’s) had a wish: she wanted to ride a horse one more time. A group of people who were in the business of making such dreams happen set up a sling across the backs of two horses and hoisted her into it. They drove the horses around slowly, and as the team began to move the camera focused on the woman’s face. She was smiling wide as her wish came true. It made me cry. And then a thought popped into my head, suddenly: These are my true feelings.

It seemed such an odd thought that I had to look at it. True feelings—it’s such a job, sometimes, to clear away all the static, the junk that’s piled up around what I really feel. Some of it I’ve created to keep myself in the dark, as protection, for a time. Some of it’s there to help me navigate and function in a world that expects certain things, certain priorities and exchanges. But all of it is sure to hold me back, eventually. I have to move it aside to get unstuck.

Near the beginning of the video, the people helping the old woman led a horse out of the barn and over to her. They put a treat in her hand, helped her hold it up, and the horse nuzzled her and took the morsel in its lips. Slumped in her wheelchair, her face remained expressionless. The helpers gave her a handful of hay and helped her bring it to her nostrils, to inhale its fragrance—a sweet aroma, once familiar to her—we knew because we’d  just seen, for a moment, a black and white photo in a frame, of a woman crouched forward over the neck of a big horse as it cleared a fence. The old woman had not only been a rider, but a jumper.

The people granting the old lady’s wish brought the horse to her, and the hay; talked to her, smiled at her. But it wasn’t until they had lifted her old and crumpled-looking body into the tarp stretched across the horses’ backs and the horses began to move that she started to smile. The camera zoomed in, and I saw the smile take over her face, as she lay there on her back, elbows in, hands folded up against her chest. Her eyes scrunched up, and on her face there was nothing but smile, as she was jostled and bounced on the warm backs of horses, once again.

What, I wondered, does all of it say about my “true feelings”?

The best moments of our lives are spent on the backs of horses: in pursuits that one way or another may be dangerous, but we’re alive and moving and connected to other living things. And at the end of our lives, what will we have that’s more precious than a few minutes that open us up to an uncontrollable, unquenchable smile?

The old woman had a passion for riding horses, so much so that one last slow trip on their backs brought her pure joy. I can only think: We love what we love, and by god, we’d better do it while we can.

 

The Blue Jay

On the porch in the morning: looking north, into woods and a view of the path dropping over the bank; the northwest corner opening to the pale blue of the Bay, in morning light, a scattering of small oaks and pines and a spindly hemlock silhouetted against it.

Sally and I are sitting here with our coffee when there’s a twang and a thump and a blue jay falls out of the sky. He’s lying on the ground below the feeder, he must have flown right into it. We watch, hoping he’ll get up. He’s on his back, rustles his wings for half a minute; I see his legs scramble, like pedaling a bike, then nothing. He goes limp.

“Oh no,” I say, because I’m pretty sure we just watched the blue jay die.

“Maybe we should turn him over,” Sally says, “in case he’s still alive.”

There seems little hope of this, but not knowing much of bird concussion, we decide to do it. I put on some gloves and walk over carefully, trying to be quiet in case he wakes up. I squat down and scoop the blue jay into my hand.

His head lolls. His eyes are just slits—emphatic as cartoon x’s. I shift him onto his belly—noticing the buff gray of his chest—and a little onto his side, trying to rest his rag-doll head on the duff of pine needles. I notice too that the feathers round his neck are not so much blue as a beautiful, rich lavender. His tail feathers, striped with black, are a piercing hue, like certain wildflowers or the apex of a clear summer sky.

This is the sad beauty of dead birds: lifeless, I am able to study them, up close. The most famous birder of them all, John James Audubon, did this, often killing them himself for the purpose. His journals record that at times he shot scores of them to execute a single portrait. Before photography, I suppose this seemed a necessity. Thankfully our ideas, and our technology, have changed, and anyway, I am not trying to paint a likeness. I will take my opportunities as they come, mournful as they are.

Some hours later I put the gloves back on and pick up the jay again. He is most certainly dead; his small body has already begun to stiffen. I turn him over in my hands, admiring once again the colors: that smoky lavender on his back, the contrasting hues of his striped wings and tail, bright sky blue and a dusky, velvety denim, edged with cream-colored scallops. I notice the crisp sharpness of his glossy black beak, the curled strength of his talons.

I thought I would bury him—but instead I walk a little deeper into the woods and, spying a small open spot on higher ground, I take him there. Before I set him down I gently fan out one wing, admiring the contours and delicate strength of the bones and feathers that lifted him into the sky. But no more. It seems so inexplicable, that a few hours ago his bright colors were flashing through the trees. How can it be?

As I turn him back over to put him down a piece of pale fluff drops from him and floats to the ground. I lay the blue jay there on the mound and walk away. Death is still the greatest of mysteries, even when expressed through the being of a bird.

Later I think again of Audubon, and the collectors and naturalists that came after him. As a child I was fascinated with the sheer number of creatures on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Now they tell a slightly different story. Before our ideas advanced we thought it a proud and scientific endeavor, to fill museums with the dead, carefully stuffed and mounted.

Worse, we treated entire species as if they were expendable, whether for sport or profit. Audubon painted the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, using freshly killed birds for models. By the dawn of the 20th century they were all extinct. The slaughter of passenger pigeons is particularly well documented in all its gruesome detail: not only guns but nets, clubs, pincers, poisonous gas and fire (to burn entire groves of trees the birds nested in) were used. The numbers are staggering: in one year, 1878, a three-man team in Petoskey, Michigan was reported to have killed over 50,000 birds.

I feel some responsibility for the blue jay’s death; we hung the feeder there between the trees, an unnatural object that somehow he did not see. Having held his delicate body in my hands, admired the colors that outdo even our most brilliant fabrics and the strong wings that accomplish flight—something we can only dream of, I can’t comprehend what it would be like to preside over a mass extinction.

Blue jays are not an endangered or even a threatened species, and I think this sad accident is a fluke. But even so I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not off the hook, entirely. What abundance do we take for granted, what are we ignoring now that will become devastatingly apparent in decades or centuries to come? Chemicals, backhoes, chainsaws, oil spills, our insatiable desire for more and bigger—cannot these be even more disastrous than guns and nets? What terrible event will we stand beside and have to say: “We did this”?

I wonder.

Nancy Squires, September 2016

Sources

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, Greenberg, Joel, Bloomsbury USA 2014.

Audubon’s Elephant: America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of The Birds of America, Hart-Davis, Duff, Henry Holt & Co. 2004.