Up and Down

“Downstate,” my neighbor and I say, standing in her vestibule. I’ve politely declined her offer to come in and sit, too much to do. I won’t stay, I tell her. So I stand in my ragged jeans and muddy work shoes, she in her bathrobe. It’s close to noon—but she’s in her 80s and lives alone. Why shouldn’t she be in her pajamas? I think if I were her, I likely would be too.

Downstate. We talk about it almost like it’s another country. It feels that way sometimes, once you’re here, for a while, the wind blowing, combing the shore; water and sand and trees surrounding you even along the highway. “More sticks than you can shake a stick at,” I quipped as we made circles around the cottage, picking up all the branches that came down over the winter. I had a big pile beside the path down to the beach, and we still hadn’t gathered them all.

An entire tree had come down, too; it fell along our property line, lying across the stream that runs there now, in spring. My neighbor mentions this first—she’s been looking at it, of course, from her window and as she walks out to her garage. I tell her I saw it, and Sally and I will cut it up. When things dry out, she says. Then we move on to other topics.

The winter was hard she says, because the weather—temperatures up and down, up and down—really got to her. “You’d think a nice warm day would feel good,” she says. But not when you know it’s not time yet, and the cold sets in again. “I think, winter is winter,” she says. I’m reminded that the seasons happen within us as well as without. “Although I did think, I don’t have to shovel.” She laughs wryly. She looks older than last year. Any kind of winter is long, I guess. But especially one that you can’t recognize.

We hug before I go; I tell her we’ll be back soon and get together for a glass of wine or something. She may be downstate, she says, May is busy. Downstate—that funny word again. Ok, I say. We’ll catch up some time.

After lunch Sally and I investigate the tree. I pick my way over to its stump, on a tiny island in the brook. The furrowed bark shows telltale D-shaped holes, and pulls right off to reveal the looping trails of insects underneath. Emerald ash borer. Just what I expected.

Later when a small plane revs overhead—for already the third time or so, this trip—I wonder about the difference, between downstate, and up north. Does it still exist? It must—there’s the Bay, glimmering in the late afternoon sun, I can see it even from behind the house, through bare spring trees. There’s not much like this, downstate.

And yet…

I am much like my neighbor, who had a hard time recognizing winter this year. I struggle sometimes to recognize this place I’ve known for nearly sixty years. Underneath the noise, despite the traffic: cars, the Fed-Ex truck, private planes. Beach-walkers, back and forth, jet skis, zooming in and out. I have to rearrange pieces of the puzzle—move this over, push that into the background—before I can say, ah, there it is, there’s the familiar picture, the one I know.

Human beings—we can adapt to change, but should we? Should we accept winter that is not winter? Should I embrace this place as it is now—shrinking, in a way? Sometimes I see it as the scene at the wrong end of a telescope: diminished, distant.

I know, though, that my perception can change, in a moment. Like Sunday morning before we left to go back “downstate.” I sat right next to the window at the end of the table, sipping coffee, looking out.  Nothing between me and the outdoors but that single sheet of glass, from which I’d taken the winter shutters a day and a half before.  All was quiet: the green bank of moss (our front “lawn”), the cedar trees, the edge of the forest. Beyond, the beach was empty; the water still, under a gray sky. Overcast but peaceful, at 7 a.m.

I felt as I often do, inside the cottage at the front windows: that I was part of what I was seeing. That all I had to do was reach, a little, and I’d be in that landscape, so close was I, so real was it. And then I saw something moving in the water close to shore, a dark head, too big and too low to be a loon or a merganser. I picked up the binoculars (we often leave them on the table) and looked. A brown, sleek head just above the surface, a long body following. I knew at once: a river otter, swimming up the Bay.

I’d never seen one before, although I remember my parents reporting sightings several years in a row. Come look, I told Sally, and she peered through the binoculars as the otter swam out of sight.

The water rises, river otters appear. Things change, sometimes for ill but now and then, for better. I stood as the otter swam out of view and hoped to see it again.

I stood at the window, and hoped.

 

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Invaders

It’s spring, and nearly time to go to the cottage. My thoughts have been turning there; we’ll be going soon. I am eager. And also apprehensive.

Last night I dreamed that I walked along the beach to find not only a long row of houses but shops, right at the water’s edge. Someone was selling pizza from an open doorway while the waves washed up just inches away.

I love pizza, I told someone, but

Later in the dream I rose in the middle of the night to look out the front window and saw coming up the Bay a line of boats, in the moonlight. They had sails up, but I could hear the throttle of their engines and see their wakes, churning furiously as they sped north. There was one person, a single figure, on each of them. Some kind of midnight race…

The dream ended with being lost in a maze of tunnels under the nearby town. Eventually I and my companions found our way out, but when we surfaced we were behind a fence. I saw in the distance an artificial waterfall, a dam, not unlike the one that actually exists at the old hydroelectric plant in town. Beyond it, an array of smokestacks (something which doesn’t exist in the real town), belched smoke into the sky. We were in a strange twilight, a dimness, but it was too early for real night. I thought we could get out if we just hopped the fence—but it looked like we would be plowing through someone’s garden. That was not going to dissuade me. I was desperate.

Soon after, I woke up. And thought: We are the most invasive species.

We hear a lot about invasive species in the Great Lakes region. First zebra then quagga mussels (imports from the Dnieper River and the Black and Caspian Seas) became legendary, for the speed and numbers at which they multiplied and for the critical changes they’ve wrought in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The emerald ash borer has been killing trees in Michigan and spreading out from here for a decade; there are a few dead ash trees on my property up north and we pass whole groves of them on the highway nearby. Asian carp swim in the canals at Chicago and their DNA has been found a mere city block from Lake Michigan. Most Great Lakes residents shudder to think about them. What if they get in? So far, no one’s had the stomach to appropriate the money it will take to effectively keep them out.

We do spend money, every year in Michigan, to neutralize sea lamprey, which overwhelmed the upper Great Lakes back in the 50s, coming in through the Welland Canal. As a result, we and the fish they prey on are relatively untroubled by these parasitic, eel-like creatures. But those measures only came to pass after the lamprey decimated native trout populations, and we replaced them with non-native salmon (a population that is currently plummeting, making some biologists hopeful for the resurgence of native lake trout.)

Everywhere you look, it seems, there is some creature that has come in and upset the ecological balance. And no one more than us.

We brought every one of those invaders into our environment. But even without importing bugs and eels and carp so aggressive they jump out of the water, we do plenty of damage of our own.

My dream last night was about the suburbanization of my neighborhood up north. There’s no pizza hut near me—yet—but I’m confounded by the ever-growing number of gas ‘n go plazas in the little town down the highway. And every year on our road more houses, and bigger, go up. Last year we watched as a massive log house that looked almost big enough to be a hotel was built—on the woods side of the road, without water frontage. My parents used to think no one would build on that side. Too much swamp, and no beach. And then the first house went up…

I haven’t seen any midnight boat races, either; but there’s a daylight event that started a few years ago, a charity race called “Thunder on the Bay.” It involves high-powered motorboats racing at top speed to various points around Grand Traverse Bay. The first time I experienced it, I was on a stepstool, cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. My back to the window, I heard a roar and all the glasses rattled on the shelf. What the hell is that? I wondered. It went on for a good forty-five minutes or so, as I recall.

All of it makes me a little crazy. When I get down to the root of it, I’m afraid. Sometimes I think maybe I just need to chill—calm down some. Yes, the world has changed since I was a kid—especially in my small corner of northern Michigan.

But then again, this is not really the time to chill.

We have a president who wants to eliminate, completely, funding to protect the Great Lakes. We have an administration that appears to be gutting the EPA, the agency charged with protecting everyone’s water, and air, and soil. We have people in power now more than ever who put profits first, and who will not acknowledge that we are changing the very climate of planet Earth by human activity.

I love the northern Great Lakes, and Michigan, my home. I know that there are people all across the country, and all around the world, that have a similar deep affinity for the places they have come up in. And as I dream troubled dreams, of strip malls and smokestacks on the Bay so dear to me, I can only cling to this: Love is an anxious business. But there is no greater force in the universe. Love can do a lot.

Chagrin

It took me a while to come out of the dreamscape this morning. But when I did I was glad to see the light seeping around the edges of the curtains. It was good to be safe and sound, waking up and alive, on a Saturday morning.

I’d been dreaming about being a writer, in a garret in the city. The places I was visiting, trying to find a studio to rent, harked back to some of the apartments of my young adulthood. I didn’t really want to be there. Despite the flowerbeds in the lawn of the art museum (which was huge, in the dream) and the gardeners tossing around a volleyball, the marble balustrades and stairs and statues were crumbling. There was an air of ruin and decay.

Writing, though—that, I was happy about. And waking, I thought: My mother used to think I would be a writer. We argued about so many things, my mother and I, each convinced the other was wrong or at least entrenched in that position, that it would probably give her great satisfaction to see me now, putting pen to paper.

We fought as far back as I can remember. I can’t take much responsibility for the early battles—I was too young. But even after I grew up some we were often at odds, and I always found it hard to give her credit. I did so only grudgingly. I remember thanking my father, personally and specifically, for giving me the experience of the cottage, and for teaching me to use a camera. I don’t remember thanking my mother for exposing me to books. I should have.

The sad truth is that with distance and detachment it is easy to say that I owe to her my long and passionate relationship with books. She read to me and my sister when we were too young to read for ourselves classics from her childhood: Little Women, Hans Brinker, Black Beauty. Early on I grasped the magic that could happen when you opened a book. When we started reading in elementary school, I already knew how.

In the summer Mom took us to the library every week, if we weren’t at the cottage. I joined some kind of club there, got credit for the stacks of books I took home and read. The club seemed peripheral—I was really there for the books.

I’m sure Mom took home her own stack of library books, devoted reader that she was. Mysteries, she loved—especially Agatha Christie, although she never had to take those titles out from the library, she owned them all—mostly in paperback (although once in a while Dad got her the latest hardcover Christie release for her birthday or Christmas.) All of those paperbacks—I didn’t have the heart to toss them, after she died. What she still had filled a paper grocery bag to brimming. I put them up on the Freecycle website, and a young woman came and got them. For her grandmother, she said, who was in bed recuperating from something I don’t recall. My mother would be pleased, I think, that I shared her wealth.

I don’t know exactly why my mom thought, way back when, that I would be a writer. Seems to me that the writing I did in childhood, lots of kids did: poems now and then, song lyrics. I do remember creating outlines for a couple of novels—but I don’t remember showing them to anyone but my best friend in the third grade.

But my mom saw something.

I watched a movie last night in which a woman could see the future, her past, and the present, simultaneously—the totality of time, all at once. In the film, knowledge and connection banish conflict, and language, writing, the symbols drawn on a page, are a bridge.

Do we ever really know our parents? Shrouded in the murky past of our childhood, it can be hard to see them as the human beings they are. And do they know us? Sometimes, it feels like they don’t. Other times, they know more than we are willing to believe.

I’m not sure I would want to see the future entire. But is it possible to know, or at least imagine, a little of what is to be? If we could, maybe we would not spend so much time and energy, fighting, sharpening our knives, and preparing to fight again. Maybe we would try a little harder to connect with the people around us. I think I heard that message in the film I watched last night—and recognized a truth my own life and my mistakes may yet teach me.

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.