“Welcome,” said the doormat brightly and the brown boot scraped against it once, twice and disappeared. “I am so tired”, said the doormat wistfully and to no one in particular, “of being treated like a doormat.”
From 2003 in response to a request to write a true-ish story featuring green sombreros and elephants .
Rabble-worn gravel path gradually traveled/A rebel unraveling stumbled and babbled…
You must leave here at once said the wind. Jump out of your window and into my arms and I will carry you far away from this danger and foolishness.
Will you really? she asked.
You have my word whistled the wind- Come on- it’ll be a Vacation.
A vacation from what?
Sense and Supposed-to-Bees.
I am not a huge fan of Sense and Supposed-to-bees.
So you’re waiting for what exactly?
She jumped and was caught in a cool rush. Arms so strong and safe that she laughed out loud for the first time in the longest time and the moon came out from behind a cloud to see what it was that merited such mirth.
Where are you taking me? she asked.
Do you think the wind knows where it’s going?
She smiled into the darkness.
Does it matter? he asked.
Not so much.
Good said the wind. That means we’ll get there.
Below them a smorgasbord world, set like a table for the feast of a king. Such muchness she thought. Her heart filling and spilling dizzy with delight as the wind dipped and spun a boyish ballet below the stars.
Alice down the Rabbit Hole he said. Wonderland is Everywhere.
Why have I never been here before?
Because you were too scared of falling.
He that is down need fear no fall…
No Fear No Fun said the wind and spun her upside down.
When she finally caught her breath she started to laugh and when she finally stopped laughing she said honestly I should go home now.
I have my reasons.
Reasons-raisins said the wind. You’re not that important.
I am tired so tired. I have sleep to do and work to dream that’s it isn’t it?
You don’t really want to go home do you?
Jump said the wind suddenly and it was a command.
She looked down. There was a longish ways to look.
Go on. Dive deep.
For pearls maybe. Maybe for fun.
For fun pearls?
When you’re diving it helps to believe there’s water under you, no?
That’s one theory.
Right she said.
And jumped headfirst into the jasmine-scented night.
The gecko looked at her critically. May I ask a silly question?
She nodded yes sticking flat to the wall and thinking life would be a whole lot easier if she could see it in the singular. Talking geckos were an entirely new phenomenon to her and she wanted to pay attention to the experience, something not so easily done when you are seeing things in triplicate.
If wishes were horses what would horses be?
If wishes were horses…she trailed off there trying to think.
You don’t know do you? Three accusing pairs of gecko eyes glared at her with unconcealed contempt.
Does it matter?
This wasn’t going well for her.
She shook her head trying to clear it.
Now there was just one gecko but one with three voices.
She’s not very bright is she?
Maybe she fell on her head when she was a baby.
That’s one theory.
And she was about to follow that with something suitably cutting, but the wind came by and shushed her with a cool finger laid against her lips.
Make-believe he whispered.
When you don’t know- the answer is Make Believe.
Go on. Make-them-Believe.
Sometimes said the wind, the Truth is a matter-of-fiction…
And then it was just the glaring gecko and the girl again
Flamingos she said loudly.
Three voices in almost-unison. The gecko looked beamish.
If wishes were horses, horses would be-
Why thank you.
Why thank me? Instantaneous indignation in a green gecko glare.
Off the Wall! thundered three voices
She shrugged and smiled.
I’m done with you she said.
And fell off the wall.
She fell for a long while and didn’t notice the flamingo flapping amiably alongside her until he cleared his throat with significant politeness.
A Flamingo she said blankly because she felt rather called upon to say something and nothing else seemed appropriate to the occasion.
No ma’am, a horse said the pink bird smugly and a poet at that.
To prove his point he then proceeded to declaim the following
Roses are red violets are blue.
I think it’s funny that last should be true.
…Well what do you think?
It’s very- succinct, she said.
Succinct said the horse-who-was-a-flamingo and profound yes?
You’re not a poet too are you?
That’s all right. Somebody has to be ordinary so it may as well be you.
She wasn’t sure she liked that take on things, but the horse-who-was-a-flamingo continued with a knowing sidelong glance-
You didn’t intend to turn out ordinary did you? No matter. Accidents happen.
I am not an Accident she said hotly.
And just then hit the surface of the cold water with a loud splash.
Can we talk about something else please? I’m off cigarettes, alcohol and dreams.
She looked up at the man across the table from her, he was blowing bubbles out of a purple pipe and sipping something frothy from an orange and green coffee mug that said “World’s Greatest Sister” across it in sky blue lettering.
What were we talking about?
Doesn’t matter said the man let’s talk about something else.
Why are you off Dreams?
Why aren’t you?
Oh but I am.
I used to think if I sat around dreaming out of windows and over the moon then sure as death and taxes Someday My Prince Would Come etc.
Mass-marketed Disney Dreams- When You Wish Upon A Star etc.
Pay no attention to me. You were saying?
That dreams mean nothing unless you wake up. That Wishing Upon Stars is all very well but then you have to get up and do something. That you can’t sit around waiting for things to happen to you. You have to Go Out and Happen to Things.
You make that up yourself?
Actually, I saw this poster once.
Anyway, I’m no longer the casement window sort.
And what sort are you pray?
A different kind of stereotype: The Hungry-for-the-Big-Bad-World sort.
By that sin fell the angels.
Yes but I’ve always thought Lucifer would have been an interesting conversationalist. Are you laughing at me?
You think I speak in jest?
Jest is a good word.
Do you remember me?
So she wrinkled her brow and blew softly over the fingers of one palm- then – yes she said her eyes bright and indecipherable. I remember. We met in a dream on Wednesday night at that corner street restaurant. You were sitting at the table across from mine wearing an orange tie with purple flowers and singing the national anthem backwards, yes?
No he said kindly.
It was a nice thought though.
It was. And there’s another one coming up right behind you.
She turned and her arm brushed against the orange and green mug that said “World’s Greatest Sister” in sky blue lettering, and as it fell of the table in slow motion the room began to spin like a top on the asphalt and she wondered what next.
Am I in your way? said the great blue elephant sadly.
Not particularly she said.
Well that’s neither here nor there.
Well neither am I.
Yes but you’re in my way.
You might’ve just said so you know.
I was being polite said the great blue elephant with haughty gloom
I was not to the ill-manner born. And where I come from rights-of-passage are respected.
Yes. Gullible Girl before Great Blue Elephant, Great Blue Elephant before Godforsaken Treetoad, Godforsaken Treetoad before-
I think I understand.
You think you’re rather clever don’t you?
I didn’t say that!
Ah- but you thought it.
How do you know I’m gullible?
Well you’re here aren’t you.
I – I don’t know.
So you see- you’re not so clever after all.
You’re very unhappy.
Yes said the great blue elephant and burst into copious tears.
And what’s worse is you’re bored.
Unbridled Boredom said the great blue elephant passionately, is my middle name.
Not very catchy.
No. Frankly I’d prefer Hortensio.
Isn’t it though?
You need to be meaningfully engaged.
To who tell? I asked the Love of my Life and she said Come back Tuesday.
When you’re not meaningfully engaged you start to spend vast quantities of time and thought on stuff that doesn’t matter or shouldn’t- and eventually you end up believing that you’re Unhappy.
Is that True?
I would never lie to you.
I need to be meaningfully engaged.
What’s stopping you?
Well- he stopped there sheepishly (and for a great blue elephant no small feat that.)
Oh- I see- I’m in your way.
The great blue elephant shot her a grateful look as she stepped aside. Bless you he said in Tamil tapping her head lightly with his long trunk and as he did so the ground gave way beneath her and she found herself falling.
Here we go again she said.
The girl in the mirror looked decidedly- cross.
What ever took you so long?
I didn’t know you were waiting.
That’s what they all say. Don’t you want to get to know yourself?
My mother told me never to talk to strangers.
How has that worked out for you?
More or less.
More. Or. Less?
Figures you know. If you don’t go within you go without.
So I’m too late?
As it happens you’re just in time. Come on In.
She took a step forward, tripped and fell through the silvery surface.
Well that’s one way of doing it said the girl in the mirror.
Quiet down you she said.
Are you looking for Jeffrey? said a creature looking most suspiciously like a Godforsaken Treetoad.
I don’t think that’s true.
And who are you?
I don’t think that’s true.
No it’s not said the creature and fell on his knees I’m just a Godforsaken Treetoad.
You ought to abandon your pretenses you know.
And would you take care of them if I did ?
Not so much.
You can get up now.
Aren’t you going to knight me first?
I think no.
What good are you he said rising sulkily.
There’s nothing wrong with being a Treetoad.
Treetoads are Real.
And that’s a good thing?
Are Moose Real?
What about Jeffrey?
I am said the oddly shaped piece of furniture in the corner, raising its head. And she realized then that it wasn’t an oddly shaped piece of furniture at all. It was a Moose.
I could be.
What does that mean?
What do You mean?
I- I’m not sure yet.
Everyone said the Moose must mean something. To someone.
That’s what makes you Real.
You are very Real she said quietly.
And very Ugly said the Moose and he twinkled at her.
I think you’re Uncommonly Attractive said the Treetoad with schoolboy earnestness.
Let that be a lesson said the Moose.
To who? She asked
Whom corrected the Moose and abruptly disappeared taking the Treetoad with him.
She stood there for awhile. Mulling. And as she mulled the room turned into a giant chute and she was sliding down it faster than she could think down to the very Bottom of What Exactly she Did Not Know.
The back of the bus was rather bumpy, her head unexpectedly encountered the ceiling several times in the space of the first five minutes and as she rubbed its top rather ruefully the girl with the billion-bitty-braids said without looking at her, I hope you don’t mind I’ve taken the aisle.
Not at all she said.
I have to be able to see where we’re going or I feel sick she explained opening a Protein bar and proffering the part sticking over the top of the package.
Thanks she said taking a small bite wondering the while why she had never found it necessary to see where she was going when she was going anywhere and wondering if that was at all sane.
You know I was supposed to be visiting the Taj today said a voice somewhat pointedly from the other side of the girl with the billion-bitty-braids.
I thought this was your Day of Silence said the girl in the aisle seat her head still unturned.
No that was Thursday said the voice cheerfully.
It is Thursday.
That’s a bald-faced lie.
She leaned forward to see where emanated this voice from and thus encountered the rugged features of a young person wearing a shirt of sheer lavender and a faded blue lungi patterned with sarcastic looking elephants.
Are you very upset about the Taj? she inquired solicitously.
Devastated he said comfortably, dried cherries anyone? And he passed around a small bag of the jeweled fruit.
Where are you supposed to be? asked the girl with the billion-bitty-braids.
She summoned the word Home to her lips from where it was buried deep down inside her, but The Floating Islands got there first so when she opened her mouth that’s what fell out.
Over-rated said he who was supposed to be visiting the Taj.
So are Supposed-to-Bees said the girl in the aisle turning for a brief second to smile before her gaze whipped back to where they were all going. All that really matters is what IS.
Have to say I’m with her on that one he said.
And what Is- I mean are – you going to do now?
I’m going to get married.
How do you feel about that?
Who’s the girl?
Manjula Subramaniaswamy. She’s from a village near a city called Madurai you probably haven’t heard of it.
Oh I’ve heard of it she said crushing a soursweet cherry between finger and thumb before streaking a vertical line of vermilion across his brow: Wish You a Happy Married Life.
Thank You Ma’am.
A friendly silence ensued. She chewed the red fruit thoughtfully and began to feel maybe there was some method to this madness after all.
I think now you should tell me a story, said the young person wearing the shirt of sheer lavender, fiancé of Manjula Subramaniaswamy from a small village near Madurai, and I think it should have feature: green sombreros and elephants.
She frowned trying to understand why this story sounded so strangely familiar to her. Just when she thought she might have it, the bus hit an exceptionally obnoxious speed breaker and she felt herself sailing out of her seat and right out the window.
The wind caught her easily, You’re a long ways from home young lady he said feigning sternness.
Where is your home? she asked feeling suddenly very sleepy.
Nowhere. Where’s yours.
Everywhere she said her eyes drifting shut.
Same Difference said the Wind softly without stopping.
We think you should wear this said the two salespersons in perfect unison pointing to a very minute overtly outlandish outfit hanging on the clothes rack in front of her.
What’s wrong with my sari? she said and then saw that it was coming all undone.
This will be more Comfortable, they continued still in chorus, and infinitely more Entertaining.
She surveyed the suggested costume skeptically.
Do you have that in red? she asked finally.
The salespersons smiled over her head at each other. One of them led her to a stool and said Forget the dress and sit down.
The other brought over a glass of cold milk and a plateful of cookies.
She gathered up as much of her trailing sari as she could and tucked it in at the waist belligerently. I detect a distinct air of condescension here she said. And I dislike it intensely.
There There chimed the salespersons soothingly. Don’t let us upset you child.
I am older than both of you she said stormily, and Three times as scandalous.
Scandalous? they fought a hard, desperate and losing battle against the kind and disbelieving laughter in their eyes.
So there was nothing left for her to do but stand up on the stool with the air of The Boy who Stood on the Burning Deck and flash forth the following in full voice:
When it feels like sin
Is extra thin
And you can through it see
It isn’t called a nightdress then-
It’s called a Negli-gee.
And then she looked around triumphantly challenging any living soul to stand up and declare she was anything less than outrageous, outlandish outfit or none. No one spoke, thus vindicated she moved to get off the stool her foot caught on her sari, the stool tipped and the room tilted dangerously.
Stop said a voice sternly. It was a girl dressed all in white save for a bright red patch sewed onto one pant leg munching popcorn out of a plastic bag.
So she stopped.
You need to quit running away said the girl authoritatively. This behavior is thoroughly unacceptable.
Running away from what?
From what you need.
I want. I don’t need.
More than anything else-
It’s a question of Greed.
Cute. But True? Not so much said the girl impassively and then impulsively- I’m like that too.
That’s one word for it. Yes. Running bleating and frantic and foolish from-
That’s one word for it. Yes. So why do you cut and run?
When the heart of me to butter turns the tongue of me to stutter then the butterflies inside of me do flutter soft but rampantly they mutter most incessantly oh what an utter fool is she and I can only splutter not deny.
Poetry to postpone Pleasure?
Or put off Pain.
And how does that work for you?
Not so much. Can I ask a silly question?
What is happiness to you?
Laundry said the girl firmly Laundry, soap-scented, sun-faded, serenely flapping in a slight breeze on an old clothesline in someone’s backyard or sweetly waving like so many young lovers over paint-peeling balconies on a narrow sidestreet somewhere in Italy
Or like prayer flags on snow-tipped mountains where the air is diamond sharp and incense-sweet somewhere in southern Tibet?
I don’t want to run away from something like that.
Remember: In every passing moment lies the chance to Turn it All Around.
That’s very wise. Did you make it up?
Actually I saw this movie once.
I need to start watching the right movies.
You need to start Turning it All Around said the girl with the red patch sewed onto one leg of her pants and even as she spoke the world started up into a slow whirl up and down and around and up and down and around and up and down and…like an irresistible carousel revolving to a faerytune on the misty fairground of a future that seemed at once impossibly near and impossibly far away.
I’m tired, said the Boy-Who-Didn’t-Particularly-Want-To-Ever-Grow-Up, sitting on green grass skipping small stones over the glass surface of a borderless bluegray sea.
Tired of what? she asked
Options. Too much. Too many. They give me headaches.
She thought about that for a long while.
Would you care to originate a sentiment? enquired the Boy somewhat dryly after what he deemed to be an inordinate interval of inconclusive silence.
Blow Wind Sun Shine Water Run Climb Vine Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Knowing Who and What You Are Knowing What You Have to Do Choiceless Lucky Ducks are you.
There you are he said The Freedom of the Fateless vs the Prison of Plural Possibility.
Choices concern and control mere Circumstances. Decisions don’t determine your Destiny.
And what does?
It’s the same deal.
Not Really. I once ate an entire bowl of Fortune Cookies.
Trying to find a Fate I liked.
All I got out of that was The Mother of All Stomachaches and a Realization.
That it’s not so much about which cookie do I eat and how’s it going to crumble. It’s about okay so this is what’s on my platter irrespective of who dished it out and now I’m going to deal. And you can toy with it indefinitely, you can slip it to the dog when no one’s looking, you can maybe start a foodfight- or you can eat it with gratitude and find a way to grow through it with grace and humility and without harm maybe even helping a few people along the way and living to make a small difference somewhere. Sometime. Which could be Now, Tomorrow and All the days after.
All that just involves more decisions.
But you see the difference.
Almost I thought you were going somewhere with the Fortune Cookie story, and he smiled engagingly and with the air of one who means no harm and much leg-pulling.
So she splashed a handful of the sea in his face.
Grow up he said laughing.
You first and she flipped some more saltwater in his general direction.
You and I she heard a voice say then, are going to rumble.
And it was just about here that she found herself being lifted up and bodily thrown into the briny bluegray of a borderless sea.
The man behind the counter looked up as she walked in. Don’t tell me he said, You need a sombrero.
Where I come from she said, it is customary for one’s parents to pick out for one at the appropriate time an appropriate sombrero.
Inconceivable said the man behind the counter what a curious custom.
It’s true she said.
Tell me though, given a choice wouldn’t you much rather pick out a sombrero for yourself?
And just how would one set about doing that?
Well it’s a fairly straightforward procedure said the man behind the counter First you look around some and then you pick out the one that catches your eye. The one that speaks to you somehow.
A speaking sombrero?
Hypothetically speaking- yes.
So let’s say it’s a green sombrero-
With a good heart?
A green sombrero with a good heart. Is that important?
Well then- yes.
So you try it on and-
I like it. I keep it. And live Happily Ever After. I see how it works.
No. Because you haven’t yet seen the Red Sombrero or met the Blue one not to mention-
What’s wrong with the Green Sombrero?
So why look at the Red or the Blue?
Because they might fit better.
And they might not.
So I might as well stick with the Green.
If you like but-
Then you’d never Really know.
How does one ever Really know?
There was a short silence.
I suppose one doesn’t ever Really said the man behind the counter slowly.
I don’t think that’s true.
How can you be so sure of things you know nothing about?
Because if some things aren’t True than nothing is.
A brief pause and then:
May I show you our selection of green sombreros Ma’am?
I don’t want a green sombrero.
No? the man behind the counter was beginning to sound a trifle confused.
I want a sombrero the color of night in the darkest hour before dawn, a sombrero star-spangled cloud-swathed and set with the crescent moon, a sombrero as constant and ever-changing as the summer sky. A sombrero that knows how to speak in silence, how to laugh and have a good time. A sombrero with a sense for the sublime- one that knows its own mind and can carpe the diem like none other.
Is that all?
Except for the bit about the good heart.
Because that’s important.
Yeah, we’re out of those smiled the man behind the counter, Sorry.
Doesn’t matter she said easily, I’d just as soon wait for one to fall on my head from heaven anyway.
Do you know you are full of the strangest ideas?
Yes. And do you know your left pupil is substantially larger than your right ?
Said Frederic and I quote Je le sais. Even as he spoke the dark center of the man behind the counter’s left eye began to spin very suddenly through the space between them and she realized suddenly and with a start that it was in truth a Frisbee and one that was moving very fast towards her indeed so she picked up her legs and jumped high to catch it which to her boundless astonishment she did only for some reason she couldn’t then come down but felt herself being lifted like Superman- Up Up and Away.
You again said a voice. And it was the Wind.
I think I’m falling she said.
Wouldn’t put it past you.
Either that or I’m flying.
I see how one might confuse the two and by the way right there that was sarcasm.
You know what my problem is?
They’ve found a name for it?
You can’t keep me Up. Or Down.
Is that a bad thing?
I don’t know. It’s interesting though.
That’s one word for it.
Vacations are Good things.
Have to say I’m with her on this one.
Don’t know that I have any worth giving.
I won’t like any advice I have to give.
Ditch it then.
She was almost Home. And the Night was thick with all that had passed since she had jumped from her window what seemed like long ages ago.
What’s that you’re holding.
A Frisbee she started to say and then realized it wasn’t. Not anymore.
She opened her fingers and found a fistful of luminous pebbles irregular in shape and size. And in their depths shone strange and familiar images. A girl with a billion-bitty-braids and a bag of popcorn, a gecko’s green glare, lines of fresh laundry dappled in the sun of late afternoon, the trailing end of a sari, the very Real faces of the Moose who could be Jeffrey and the Godforsaken Treetoad who thought him Uncommonly Attractive…she tore her eyes away from the shifting silhouettes.
Fun Pearls she said softly, gratefully, just as they reached her window.
You’ve been an awesome support.
Was just standing around anyways- figured someone might as well lean on me said the Wind shrugging in his usual way. So when’s the next Vacation?
I don’t know. But I think next time I may want to go Ice-skating.
Yes. Because it’s the thing to do here you know, and I am told it requires a fine sense of balance, great agility, flawless co-ordination and natural grace talents I happen to possess in abundance and by the way right there- that was sarcasm.
Ice-skating it is then.
And all this is a lesson for you.
How is this a lesson for me?
It just is.
All right then he said, Platonic hi-five?
And as she put a hand up against the palm of the wind the sudden scent of jasmine wafted across the world.
All alone in the still silence of that night, leaning over the window sill and into the darkness, she gathered all her strength into one arm and unfurled her clenched fist like a flag in the moonlight flinging the soft white pearls far and wide across a vastness of sky where they stuck hard and fast- and where they remain to this day–to witness if I lie.
M is always making disparaging remarks about her husband in front of dinner guests. But she has never once complained about being the sole caretaker or her invalid, and live-in mother-in-law, whose three daughters, though well-settled and in the same town, have never offered to have their mother stay with them. Not even for a weekend. R is is an incurable snoop who turns eavesdropping into a high art. She reads other people’s emails when they are away from their desks, and asks prying questions of private people with all the delicacy of a chainsaw. But she never passes a homeless person on the street without stopping to give them something to eat. C has an explosive temper and a dagger sharp tongue. He regularly reduces the people in his life to tears. Even telemarketers. But he would lay his life down for his dog who is old and very sick. Sometimes the dog falls asleep with his head on C’s feet, while C is reading in his easy chair. On those nights C sleeps sitting up because he doesn’t want to disturb the dog. T is incredibly pompous and overbearing. He is always interrupting people and never bothers to learn anyone’s name. He hasn’t had a real conversation since the turn of the century when his company went public. But he is single-handedly, and anonymously funding the education of all the little girls in the village he grew up in. Because his mother, who died when he was young, always told him how much she regretted not being able to read and write.
A drunken stagger is perfectly acceptable when walking down the aisle of a moving train. I think this thought to myself while lurching gently towards the door, my station fast approaching, and just before my gaze snags, catches sharply (as stray wool of sweater on nail) on the scene of a middle-aged man whose snores grumble like waves, steadily over the shores of an open book.
I stop and stare, yes forgetting for a moment to maintain the courteous indifference train travelers exhibit to one another, observers of an unwritten code –“We shall not presume to be interested– no not even faintly—in one another.”
For I have been startled now into undeniable interest. By a man whose busy head is flopped forward in the rag doll abandon and recklessness of unintended sleep. I would give a great deal to know the hidden title of the book that prompted its reader into this public morning slumber.
He is attired in importance, in the pinstriped pajamas of the corporate world. A briefcase leans against his arm like a very tired teddy bear. In a moment the train will rattle to a stop and the scuffle of commuters coming and going will fill the air, will snatch the thin covers off this dreaming form and he will wake to the brief bewilderment of being who he is and where and when.
And glancing down at his book I wonder how much he will remember. Will the details of the plot be clear or blurred, an out-of-focus photo of a familiar place? Will he recognize all the characters and perceive the truth of their tangled motivations or will he use up a measure of suspicion and formality on them all over again?
The train stops, I do not wait to see his head lift, his eyes open, my feet carry me forward. I step off the train light as a falling leaf knowing suddenly, that we too drift, in and out of life with each passing moment, sleep and wake at nameless stations to find an open book cradled in our laps – the long-winded story without title that we started when the stars were children.
A story whose brilliant and tender plot is concealed only by our human and endearing forgetfulness.
Snatches from sundry letters and journal entries 2015-2018
‘The glass is already broken.’ I did not know how to wrap my head around the riddle of this oh-so-very Zen koan when I first heard it. Because the glass was not broken. The glass was Very Not broken. In fact the glass was the precise definition of just how unbroken a glass could be. The glass is breakable. I was willing to concede that much. With enough time and enough life experience, it is possible, even probable that the glass will one day be broken. This too I was willing to agree to, even though glass is one of the longest-lasting man-made substances in existence. By most estimates it takes a million years for a glass bottle to degrade. (A million years! How much more indestructible than that can you get?). The glass is already broken. What can this possibly mean? Because being whole, and being breakable are not the same as being already broken. Unless time and space are an illusion.
We were married exactly ten years ago. A dawn wedding in a stone-pillared temple, with a lotus tank in the back, and a view of Elephant Rock. Time is a strange animal. A decade can slip like water through your fingers. An unexpected night in the hospital can be its own eternity. The blood test showed acute bone marrow suppression. They kept him overnight. Gave him two units of blood, a platelet transfusion and a bone marrow biopsy. Just days earlier he’d helped carry a wheelchair-bound friend up the stairs to our home. He’d tossed a frisbee, climbed a steep hill, given a high-level presentation at work. Maybe leukemia they told us, no way of knowing until further test results came in.
Are time and space an illusion?
The glass is already broken.
“You’re such a nice couple,” sighed the nurse with the tired face and kind eyes. This was the night we spent in the hospital after the first blood tests revealed something was drastically wrong. And I knew what she was thinking — that we were too young for this. I’d had that fleeting thought too. But I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t true. Of course I want more time. Much more time. But that doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it, no more than I’ve been entitled to the last ten years. I have received blessings beyond measure. On this point I am clear. While this does not stop me from being fearful, it spares me from feeling cheated. Fate brought V and I together in this lifetime. On the strength of this fact alone, whatever else it has in store, I will not stop being grateful.
The morning after our first night back home from the hospital, I wake up and feel my whole mind and being enveloped in a deep blanket of peace. The last two days have been a hot blur. A whirling surreality. Now it is just the two of us, here in our shaded room. The quiet air, and the strength of our long-time love between us. And a certainty blooming inside me like a flower in the desert: Everything is going to be fine. My husband opens his eyes. I lean over and repeat these words. Everything is going to be fine. He smiles, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Everything is going to be fine. And everything IS fine,” he says in a voice fuzzy with sleep. And after the space of a heartbeat adds gently, “You have to expand your definition of fine.”
The results of the bone marrow biopsy are in and we have an appointment this afternoon with the Hem-onc to discuss the diagnosis. Hematologist-oncologist is a title I was unfamiliar with before this time. I did not know that blood doctors and cancer doctors trained together and shared a title. Over the course of the next few weeks there is much that I will learn about that I did not even know existed before. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ As we prepare for the appointment something stretches taut in my stomach. My features take on a certain fixedness. I feel like I am wearing a mask as I go about the motions of the day, held in a vise-like grip of apprehension. An unrevealed immensity lies ahead of us. We have been given no indication of what the diagnosis is.
Minutes before we are to leave for the hospital a white van swings into our driveway. A sturdy dark-haired man marches up our stairs. “It’s M” says V. M is the sweet Mexican gardener who used to work for the previous owners of our home. He speaks very little English with a lot of warmth. The first time we met a construction crew was doing demo work in our kitchen. He came up and chatted cheerily with all of them in Spanish. Then before leaving he went back upstairs “to say bye to my amigos”. I wanted to hug him. We’d had him come by once, before we moved in, to clean up yard and cut back some of the unruly shrubbery. He came with his son and brother and they left before we paid them the full amount. Now I get a fresh bill out of my purse and go to the door. I thank M for coming by and hand him the bill. “When I come again?” he asks. I tell him my husband is sick and that we are going to the hospital now. And that I will contact him later. “Don’t wait long time,” he says, “Too much work then. And now it already look ugly!” His intensity and frank assessment of our yard make me laugh a little. My husband is very sick I say again, I don’t know when we are going to take care of the yard yet. At this his face softens. He tries to hand me the bill I just gave him, “You need money?” he asks. And I shake my head no, no. It’s not that. “When you call me I give big discount,” he says, “Your husband he will be okay.” The compassion and concern in his voice is my undoing. My eyes fill with tears. “Ah — no cry,” says M. “I come and no charge. Do all work no charge.” I smile through my tears at this generous, soft-hearted man. “This is life. This is life, it not bad, it is good,” he tells me earnestly. I can feel the depth of a profound feeling behind his simple words. “I almost die, two years ago,” he says, “My children pray and bring me back.” Then he asks me if I am Catholic. It is a question I’ve never been asked before. “No,” I say with a small shake of my head. He makes a gesture as if brushing aside a fly, “No problem,” he says,”It’s okay. Just pray how you pray.” Before driving away he assures me repeatedly that my husband will be fine. His unannounced presence, his words and the gentle goodness behind them feel like a blessing.
I was most in need of blessing.
My mind has trouble fathoming all the implications. Severed from past and future we are walking a tightrope of uncertainty. There is only this time. There is only this here and now. In the midst of the haze of it all a quiet voice makes itself heard: It has never been any other way.
Grocery store pleasantries are hard in the first week. “How are you?” an unsuspecting check-out clerk might ask, and I’d push the word “Fine” out of my mouth like a dull, heavy rock. My husband waits in the car, with a stranger’s blood coursing through his veins. I see his face through the window. His expression is soft, and kind and unafraid. I fight back tears. Amidst the melons and the cheese, and the bright baskets of berries, and the fragrant loaves of bread, ordinary life flows by. Newly estranged from all of it my heart is full of fresh thorns and wrenching concerns. How am I doing you ask? I feel like a little twig that’s just been blown into the ocean. That’s how I am doing. And you?
My heart has folded into itself. It has boarded up all extraneous chambers and operates like a bomb shelter. Strict necessities are attended to meticulously. There is little time or room for anything else. When the phone rings unless it is one of the doctors or the immediate family I do not answer it. I rarely check email and more rarely still send out replies. I have gone AWOL from the charming and charmed landscape of my former life, dotted as it was with lovely friends, beguiling projects and generously brushed with a sense of adventure. None of it feels relevant to this here and now. Life is in a tailspin. The adrenaline coursing through me controls my attention. I feel like a laser full of intense direction, and incapable of casualness. In this mode, when other people share pedestrian notes from their days something inside me ices over with hidden anger and despair. Is this how surgeons and soldiers feel sometimes? For my own part, I feel like I’m in the trenches. Conversation from the outside world is all prattle and paper dolls. Yet V listens to everyone with genuine interest and warmth. Not pitting his precarious circumstances against their pale priorities. Not expecting them to be anything more or less than who they are in that moment. Between the two of us he is, and always has been, far and away the better person.
The things people will do for each other out of goodness goes far beyond rational understanding. I have always known this, and yet living on the receiving end of a wide web of unconditional love brings its own kind of beautiful overwhelm. A friend calls and calls and calls again because I haven’t picked up. When I finally answer a voice on the other end says in a rush, “I know you don’t have a lot of time right now, but I just want to ask one question: “What can I do?” I am in the middle of making dinner at the time, and I smile, touched by the vigorous sincerity and wholeheartedness of the question. I say something to the effect of — am so touched (and I was), will definitely let you know if we need anything. But right now we’re all set. My voice is confident, calm, even cheerful, and so, in that moment, am I. We chat for a few minutes longer and then I hear this, “Pavi I’m ready to do whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed for however long it’s needed. Just call me if there’s absolutely anything I can do.” And just like that there is a rock in my throat and my eyes fill. I want to say something gracious and cheerful but my eyes are filled with tears and words seem to literally stick in my throat. When I finally manage to say something my friend is crying and hurriedly says goodbye. I dry my eyes directly afterwards and finish making dinner. There have been so many heartfelt offers of help in this time and I appreciate each of them, but something about this particular one has melted something inside me. I am touched but also slightly frustrated by my inability to hold it together.
“I like to remind myself and anyone who will listen to me that every one of our red blood cells contains cobalt (which is why we need to consume cobalt-containing Vitamin B12), and that cobalt had to have been manufactured in a supernova. (Cobalt’s nucleus is too big to be formed by the pressures inside any star, and required the force of a supernova). We contain many billions of red blood cells and if we are smart, we eat B12 every day, and so it is that we are dining on and rearranging the blue jewels of unimaginably ancient, galactic events.”
There are blood tests every few days. V wears a mask as we enter the hospital, and I hold onto his arm and am careful not to meet anyone’s gaze. No one here knows this tall being is a gem, dear beyond all telling. The hospital and lab staff are kind in an automatic, colorless way. They treat him like an anonymous patient and he responds by treating each one of them like a person. One morning they take sixteen vials of blood from my husband. And we find out later that the technician made a mistake in the processing, and now he must return to give eight vials more. This news fills me with grief and fury. How could they be so careless with his blood? But V is immediately forgiving. Later when a rookie technician jabs him multiple times without finding a vein, his supervisor steps in to complete the draw. I make an effort to hold my peace, and manage but just barely. As we are walking back to our car V says, “I almost asked the supervisor to let the other guy try again. He must have felt bad about botching it like that. Would have been nice to give him another chance.”
There is a little patch of fenced in yard space on the northern side of our home. It can be accessed from the back deck. It is an irregularly shaped piece of land, bordered on one side by a clutch of tall, slender trees whose leaves crunch under foot. There used to be a lawn here but now it is just a stretch of brown earth, that warms quickly in the morning sun. In the far corner is a little shrub of a tree that I take to calling Little Tree. He’d suffered prolonged neglect during the many months of construction before we moved into the house. Now he is a sad bundle of dried up branches and twigs, bearing only a handful of forlorn leaves. I remember seeing purple flowers on him when we first bought the place. Now looking at him I fill with guilt — how could we have forgotten all about him? I begin to water Little Tree, and talk to him a little bit in the mornings. V sits nearby taking in the rays of early sunlight. We do this every day, and as I look at the two of them, a garden shrub whose sap seems to have run dry, and my husband whose bone marrow has very nearly stopped producing life-giving blood cells I can’t help but wonder if their fates might be joined somehow. And then I quickly tell myself this is a dangerous thought. I do not want to be doubly devastated if this tree does not make it. For a week or so nothing seems to happen. Then one day soon after V’s counts have begun to rise, I see, a small army of buds and it feels like a miracle. Within a few days they have multiplied and then almost overnight Little Tree is a green and purple festival unto himself. Hundreds of little flowers shaking their heads in the sunlight. V’s counts too have been steadily rising. They are both getting better. And I am learning not to take for granted this thing called life that is at once more fragile and resilient than I ever dreamed. How little it needs to flourish. And how much it needs that little. Humble acts of caring against the backdrop of an inscrutable universe go farther than we imagine.
There is so much to do. From the moment I wake up to the time I lie down again at night each moment is spoken for. Sometimes I feel like there is a superhuman strength powering me. Sometimes I feel very tired and very old.
Here is how it is for me: My heart does not feel big enough to contain the beauty of the world alone. Beauty, without a sense of the beloved to share in the sense of splendor, becomes almost frightening, takes on the chill of indifference. Something that moves you, but will never be moved by you.
Days meld into weeks, weeks into months. This state of seclusion in slow stages has grown oddly sweet and familiar. This uncertainty is now accustomed and life is streaked vivid with grace. Running errands I am cheerful and rooted again. No longer lost and stumbling ‘amid alien corn’. No longer so easily wounded by innocuous things.
It is a week of California-style December rain. One moment the day is golden and the sky a blameless shade of blue. The next moment gray clouds swoop in like storm troopers hijacking any hint of warmth. Sometimes rain clatters on the rooftop like a runaway team of reindeer. Sometimes it falls with no warning in silent sheets from the sky. You look up and are surprised by the slant of silvery dotted lines connecting sky and earth. The loveliness of this soundless weeping, tugs at something deep inside you. Every so often the sun comes out to dance with the falling drops, and you are treated to a sky canvas brushed with low-slung indigo clouds on one side and all the rest of it a shimmering sea of sapphire that seems to tint the whole world a gauzy shade of blue. When this happens you know that there are rainbows out, tossing their bright arcs across the way. Catching one is only a matter of looking up at the right time and in the right direction.
The first time I ever saw a shooting star I closed my eyes and V’s name unfurled in the darkness. Not so much a wish as a vivid revelation. I was stunned yet also not surprised. The second time I saw a shooting star was a year and a half later. I closed my eyes, and my mind went quiet. I held the perfection of that moment in the palm of my hand. Conscious that I was, in that moment, empty of any kind of ask. Improbable as it seems, on both occasions V was right next to me. A day later and in the presence of a bad-tempered rickshaw driver (whom I will forever think of with a great rush of affection), we had our first conversation about what we’d each known independently for awhile: if either of us were to ever get married, it would be to the other. We’d known each other for three years, but for the vast majority of that time were out of touch. We lived on opposite sides of the world and the limited time we’d spent together was almost always with many others around. This conversation was apropos of nothing apparent, and yet I remember looking out of the rickshaw into the darkness and feeling aware of my mind, and how surprisingly still and calm it was. Not whirling or breathless at all. But rooted and clear-eyed. I remember thinking, ‘Here is the bridge. Here is the sky. That is the ocean. Those are the trees. And this is V. Here. By my side.’ And it was as natural and lovely and extra ordinary and irrefutable as that. He left the same week. The next time we crossed paths was at our engagement ceremony, the night before our wedding.
It is afternoon and I am online Googling a rare health condition that a friend is navigating. He’s assessing his treatment options and has asked for help. I skip to the task armed with unsuspecting buoyancy and a basketful of good intentions. All that’s missing is a little red hood. I have forgotten all about wolves. The woods of online medical research are unlovely, dark and deep. Link after link leads me into a cheerless labyrinth of grim studies and unsettling reports. As I read, slowly, and almost imperceptibly, thorny statistics creep thickly across the walls. The air grows dark and heavy with the inelegant, vaguely threatening names of aggressive drugs and risk-ridden procedures. My mind gradually picks up speed and tension. Begins to hurtle from page to page. Looking for sanctuary. A place to perch. Safe from all that prowls and growls and snaps. Without intending to, something in my heart clenches and dims. While my thoughts are playing catch up, my body has instantly recognized all the cues. I have been here before. Six months ago. When we were first shipwrecked on this island of uncertainty with a strange diagnosis. I trawled the unreliable waters of the internet, fighting my worst fears with a paradoxical combination of trembling equanimity and quiet desperation. Reminding myself periodically to steady myself, ready myself to meet reality on its own terms. While looking for something — anything — in a sea of only sometimes reliable intelligence and information, that might vaguely resemble cause for hope. An old script has been triggered, and the stuff of my being now redirects itself to play out the lines.
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing” But there are times when my soul isn’t quite in the mood for TS Eliot.
In the evening awash with exhaustion and new insight I tell V that this is my opportunity. This here and now. To nip in the bud that which I planted unaware. The strong tendrils that twined their way around me this afternoon sprang from the hidden seeds of all the things I did not live fully the first time around. All the things I unwittingly forced underground. All that I did not, or could not face with a poised and loving heart. When you do not live the moment, the moment lives in you. There’s the rub. It sleeps undisturbed in a deep furrow of your existence until time and fertile circumstances summon it back to life. Then it grows. And how! With the same strength and vigor that bursts a billion buds onto branch tips in Spring. And Spring has come early this year. Mixing memory and desire. And there is Eliot again. What is it with him and this time?
In my first year of college I fell into Wasteland the way every Lit major does. Like Alice down a darker (but no less wonderful) version of the rabbit hole. One night I woke up in my dorm room. A room shared with three other girls all of whom majored in subjects far more practical than English Lit. And without really meaning to I held out my hand in the darkness and chanted this line: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. And what I felt wasn’t fear but the rush of being taken by beauty and grandscale excitement. After that mellow dramatic moment I fell back into a sound sleep. For the record never before, or after have I been known to wake up unprovoked in the middle of the night quoting poets living or dead.
Several weeks prior to that fateful ER visit I would sense the ground lurching when I lay down at night. A feeling would follow that was akin to what one might feel lying on a flimsy raft spinning on unquiet waters. There was no apparent cause for this churning. But after the diagnosis came in, I wondered whether I’d subconsciously known all along that something was amiss. Now it has been six months of near-seclusion. The journey has been slow and unpredictable. On the surface I am taking it all in my stride. “His body took a very hard hit,” I tell myself and other people, “and now the body needs time to recover. We have to take it a step at a time.” It was summer when we started down this path. Then before we knew it Fall flew by in a bonfire of optimism, and now Winter too seems to have vanished overnight. The air is like molten gold in the mornings and the hills are strewn with flowers. Each day dawns like a celebration. I am drinking it all in and am not consciously worried. But in the subterranean realms something is amiss. I know this because when I lie down these days the bed morphs into a raft again, And the room spins.
V smiles quietly. “It is what it is,” his face says, “Don’t read too much into any of this.” How simple that sounds. And how hard in practice. We are born interpreters of maladies. We look for good omens in the clouds and in tea leaves and in the eyes of our loved ones. Reading too much into things is a hard habit to break. In the middle of the day I look over at V. He is reading. I see the way his eyes move, following the lines of hidden words with quiet attention. Whenever he is reading, or watching anything on a screen a kind of total absorption settles about his features and I catch a glimpse in his profile of the little boy he must have been once. It moves me to an aching kind of tenderness. How sweet he is, this husband of mine. How can he possibly be so sick? There is no answering questions like that. My throat is tangled with knots. Breathe Pavi. Breathe. Just breathe.
On our evening walk we cross a nondescript brown house. In front of it is a magnificent magnolia tree that has exploded into blossom. It is like something out of a forgotten myth. Thousands upon thousands of blooms at a glance. Standing under it and looking up is like being enveloped by a rising cloud of butterflies — such unbelievably creamy petals full of soft shadows and indescribable shades of pink. How extravagant they are in the act of opening. Stretching past the limits of their shape with such grace and abandon. Every puff of wind sends petals whirling to the ground. The grass is covered in soft pink heaps. V waits patiently as I pull out the camera and inexpertly attempt to capture this confusion of beauty. The perfume stands in the air like an entity unto itself. Rich, full-blown and unmistakably feminine. The senses reel trying to take it all in. We have stumbled upon this tree at the peak of its astounding exhilaration. It’s fertility barely reined in. It looks invincible. Almost. Already, hidden in the branches some blossoms have relinquished their flawlessness. Curling around the edges. Showing signs of bruising. It is only a matter of time before they take over the tree, slowly drowning this vibrancy in the withered garb of decay. The fragrance that is so poised and enchanting in this moment, will turn too-ripe and vaguely displeasing. Other flowers in other gardens will step into their prime as the brown, creased magnolia petals float gently to the earth like so many forgotten tongues. All this lies just around the corner for this tree. But right now it is still alight and a-tremble with life and rose-tinted possibility. Such powerful fragility. It weakens the knees. Like a woman with a drawstring coin purse, I sort through a jumbled heap of shining, insufficient words. How pale and paltry a thing vocabulary is! Nothing I have to say can equal this moment among the magnolias.
For awhile now I’ve been waking up a couple of hours before V does. I wash my face, brush my teeth and slip out of the room as quietly as I can. The world is so lovely and quiet in the mornings. It fills my heart with a special kind of peace. I look out over the valley and the hills to the water. Standing at the window I greet the trees and sure as a bucket lowered into a well, I fill with the cool waters of gratefulness. Then I light a single stick of incense and sit down on my cushion . After an hour I rise and will do an hour of yoga. These two hours of inhabiting mind and body as fully as I am able to, become the foundation for the rest of the day. I cherish the sense of quiet agency it gives me. When V comes into the room, his dearness breaks over me like a wave. This feeling is not new, and it’s not because of his illness. Seeing him in the morning has always felt this way.
I marvel at how quickly the days slip through my fingers. There is a rhythm to the daily tasks. The preparing of medicines, and meals. The cleaning of floors and walls, counter tops and door handles. The loading and unloading of the dishwasher. The basket of laundry to tend to. In the kitchen we work well together as we always have.There is an improvised flow to our partnership, it is full of a musical ease and spontaneity. And much laughter as we strike hilarious bargains, each trying to wheedle the other into taking care of certain chores. From the outside all this might seem unremarkable, but I cherish the ordinary luxury of these moments beyond all telling.
He is losing weight. I see a new slightness in his build. How his clothes look large on him. In the evenings I hear tiredness creep into his voice– a voice that typically rings bright with energy. When we walk the hills his stride is slower. My gaze follows him intently during the day. Takes note of little details. What I am seeing worries me.
The night air fills with all the fears I studiously ignore in daylight. When it’s time to go to sleep, I take my position like a conflicted soldier. Crouched in the dugout of awareness. Trying to be watchful of my breath and any movement on the horizon. ‘They talk a good talk, but do not be deceived,’ I tell myself. ‘Your thoughts have no useful place here.’ Even self-warned in this way, I fall for their Pied Piper allure sometimes. Abandoning my post I am often halfway to the sea before I catch myself blindly stumbling after their dark trickster tunes. What is happening? What is going to happen? These questions balloon up in the night. They will fill all available space if I let them. Sometimes I have my pin ready. Sometimes I do not.
Then there come mornings when I wake up and for no conscious reason, my being refuses to be worried. It has perhaps decided it no longer has the energy to entertain anxiety. Bottom line, being emptied of anxiety fills me with a fresh kind of energy. On these days I am extra susceptible to the beauty of the world. It rushes in to occupy the vacuum in my attention.
A walk somewhere in San Mateo. Boy on a steep hill riding a skateboard down. Body graceful, padded hands skimming the street when he crouches. He is curly-haired, cute, full of a beautiful vigor and careless confidence. “Looks like fun,” V calls out. “It is,” the boy shoots back over his shoulder, “and scary sometimes!”
Isn’t that life?
These days my mind feels hummingbird restless, unable to sit still for long. Full of impatience and an undefined urgency. What is this ‘next thing’ that I seem to be perpetually rushing to–unaware that I am rushing? Lately I have been trying to practice ‘simple’ things. Breathing. Releasing tension from all its secret cubbyholes in the body. Feeling my feet on the ground. The rising stalk of my spine. What a gift yoga has been.
A loud noise wakes me. A noise it turns out that was only in my dream. I lay awake luxuriating in the start of this day. Mornings are different now. Quietly charged with something that is peaceful and happy. But even as I slow down the pace of my mind, the day seems sped up. Where are they gone too? The interminable afternoons of my childhood? The weeks that felt like months and the months that felt like years? I am trying to do what generations of human beings have tried to do before me.
I am trying to slow time down.
Have I mentioned the watercolor apples I am attempting? And violets and shaggy pines? I purchased a student-grade paint set and have discovered online tutorials, some of them magical to watch. One of my virtual teachers is a mother from Maine with a giggly, babbling sweetness about her. Like a brook with hands that can paint. In the videos that is all that you see of her. Her hands, that bring beauty to bloom on the blank page. It thrills something inside me to see the vivid colors — crimson, sap green, cadmium yellow, inky blue…the way they cloud and swirl and mingle into light and shadows and leaves and petals. It makes my heart ache a little bit with the beauty of it all. My work is well-intentioned and clumsy, and I am a little addicted to the attempting of it. I know I will never be very good, but there is something in me that’s drawn to dabble. Perhaps it’s just a longing to make beauty. To create. To ‘improve the blank page’ without words. I am not there yet.
There are times when we stumble into the experience of the saint. Awash with love and wonder for all we see and all that we can’t alike. Invincible we stroll down grocery store aisles, circle the packed parking lot waiting with a smile for an open space. Nothing can perturb our loveliness of spirit. Not inconsiderate drivers, not nagging superiors, or difficult relatives. Not potholes or burnt toast, not rude immigration officers or squeaky floorboards. Everything that breathes deserves your affection, loosed like a puppy on the beach, indiscriminate in its bounding joy and readiness to like everyone. Even inanimate objects in these moments seem full of grace. The pebble you pick up from the ground is a talisman. The cloud wandering over head a kind of benediction.
It is that honeyed time of year again. Light so sweet and golden one wants to spread it on toast and eat it all up. The trees are changing colors and releasing their leaves. Watching them drift to the ground is a lesson in grace. To move that lightly, that in concert with an invisible current. Love for V waxes like a moon that never wanes. Grows fuller, ever more radiant. Yet quiet like the moon. It does not seek attention yet illuminates darkness. This love lights the nighttime corners of my soul. In this time more than others I sense shadows that are ready to be metabolized. Old patterns with plenty of energy that can be harnessed and redirected. I have been playing so many games in the labyrinthine interiors of mind. Motives ill-serving disguised as good intentions or righteous actions. How tricky, slippery and not-to-blame is this mind of mine that does what it does with such skill and faithfulness to the rules that govern it. Unrelenting in its energy, unfailing in its readiness to act, fueled by a blind, protective impulse. Misguided yes, but its loyalty is oddly touching. I can do more, so much more to guide it in the right direction. It amazes me how much time can be wasted under the guise of doing good work. A blue sheet of sky outside my window. What does it know of time and mistakes and progress? I want to live with that kind of lack of concern for distractions. That kind of dwelled-in awareness that does not easily get dazzled or disturbed by surface. A tiny rose bloomed yesterday. Like a pearl yawning. Like dawn in a teacup, like a flower fallen from the little hands of a baby goddess. Cream tinged with the faintest of blushes. Such symmetry and poise, such quiet confidence and novelty, even though it is one in a long succession of roses that have bloomed before, it retains unique value. It claims to be what it is. Entirely. No more and not a modicum less. Perhaps that is what true grace is. Owning each atom. Without entitlement or apology.
Why do I feel so many invisible pressures? What is this tension I am carrying inside my stomach, my chest, across my back? Even when I wake up I can feel it coiling in my body. What is the states of my soul these days? Everything was shimmering sand and enchanted forest until it was not. Now the colors are not technicolored, the song not completely on key. Somehow this does not diminish the experience. Grape vines are ‘tortured’ to make the wine more sweet. The turbulences of my heart and mind perhaps have a similar agency,. I could use some sweetening. I am not sure when I acquired such a caustic sensibility. It is not a steady presence, but hides under some rock in my mind. Steps out to sun itself on occasion and startles me with its reptilian presence, its scales and beady eyes. I am learning that my habits of interpretation are not very enlightened. And what’s worse–they are dull. Tedious and untrue is not a good combination. If one is going to make up stories then they may as well be fascinating, or why bother.
No matter how long you wait
With your eyes fixed unblinkingly
On the horizon
The sun will not rise into sight
If you are facing
What are you world? And what do you think of me? I sit here admiring your breadth, your complexity. A little afraid of your possibilities and the dark roads. A lot in awe of how you keep so many things in motion. The moon, the planets, the seasons of my heart. I have far less to keep track of and you can see the effort I make. Your exertion if it exists is hidden. The work as natural as my next breath and as unbidden. Some days your grandness swoops underneath me, lifts me to dizzying heights, makes me experience a greatness that is not mine. I borrow your grandeur like a child playing dress-up, only I do not realize it is all a game. Other days your stature renders me insignificant and empty of hope. Too small to make a difference, too forgotten to feel responsible. How to dance with more grace between these extremes of royalty and paupery? I crash like a lost ship on hidden rocks and rise like a dazzling phoenix only to do it all over again. The same rounds only they aren’t ever quite the same are they?
Divali. Our lamps are lit. Darkness falls early. The clocks went back this week. The Earth is settling into herself. Saying her goodbyes. Preparing for a deep sleep. Time turns precious in autumn. Long, languid summer days deceive us into thinking we will live forever. In autumn every day is a reminder. Our time in the sun is short. I look at V and realize that a week from now we will have been married 13 years. Thirteen! And I have not grown accustomed yet to the largesse of this love. The fineness of his person and the generosity of a fate that drew us together. Sometimes it seems to me so very improbable. Our togetherness. Improbable yet natural. The sense of ease and belonging that I feel is still a surprise. Unaccountable and not quite of this world. Earthly life is full of edges, conditions and compromises. Loving and being loved by V has never felt that way. He is so utterly himself, so sweetly composed, so full of understanding and affection, so full of quiet capacity. But all these words are slipping on the surface of what I want to say which is something more secret and unsayable, like the velvet interior of a rose half-blown, soft, full of grace and scented light.
And what do I remember from this day? Waking early after a too-late night and finding V awake too. We play a word association game. Bread butter jam traffic stop light sky fall wind — enlightenment said V suddenly. Enlightenment? I ask. Yes says V. I thought I should step things up.
Today is Christmas. I love the sound of the word and the stories behind it. I love all the Christmas carols. We walked out into a cold evening and warmed ourselves by choosing steep hills to climb. I loved seeing the lit Christmas trees in the windows, glimpses of people in their kitchens or gathering at their dining tables. Trees aglitter with golden lights, fairy-like deer illuminated in shadowy gardens. Scent of wood smoke. How sweet a gift it is that for many months now V has more breath and energy than I do as we ramble these hills.
January rains slant outside my window, clouds hang low, the air is cold. The drenched world glistens. Beautiful, strange, aloof. Like a mermaid sitting on the rocks. I belong to rainy days. They are kindred to my soul. Their bad-tempered beauty delights me. Too many days of uninterrupted sunshine are like a toothpaste jingle playing over and over again in my head. Upbeat and catchy at first. Then tiresome. So let the skies darken with the drumroll of the clouds. Let the heart fling open its attic window, and let the bats take flight. Gray can be gorgeous. It’s the shadows that give meaning and depth to the light.
There is a voluptuous fullness to the days. A sleekness that feels effortless. The hours fill of their own accord. I give my time lavishly in many respects. But outside my doorstep I can feel more than one project prowling, like a big cat. If I step outside unguarded one or the other of them will eat me alive, and I am not sure I want that–yet.
A February week full of balmy skies and blossom-scented winds. A Spring preview. The dark-limbed trees have all gone bridal. Slender, veiled in white and the palest of pinks. The flowering acacia that grow wild in these hills have put out their feathery yellow pompoms, the ruffled rosy petals of the camellias, are blooming a hundred to a bush, the frilly faces of early daffodils laugh up at you from winter gardens. Everywhere you turn there are fat buds gleaming greenly on bare branches, you could have sworn they weren’t there a second ago. You catch a glimpse of happy bumblebees tumbling in a spray of purple flowers. A temperate sun warms your face and inclines you towards forgiveness and fresh enthusiasms. Look around. And stop worrying. The whole world is ripening towards fruition. With no sign of haste. And nothing forgotten. Least of all you.
It is night time and I can see myself reflected in our picture window. A perfect ghostly replica of me, in our home, with my husband in the background loading the dishwasher in his patient and scientifically-perfected way. In a few moments we will have retired to bed and the window will go dark. Where will the vanished reflections take refuge then? In the shadowy corridors of my unreliable memory no doubt. Years later perhaps they will spill out like the contents of an overstuffed purse. And I will pick them up and look them over with eyes alight with wonder and longing. How beautiful your life was I will say. And then catching sight of my reflection in another night-time window, How beautiful your life is I will add, before the curtain comes down and all goes dark again.
In grocery stores budded irises are bundled together, like perfectly sharpened purple-pointed pencils, like slender indigo-edged spears, like a quiver of Spring arrows poised to unbend unhappy bents of mind. Take a sheaf home, place it in a glass vase and by morning, from poised purple-tipped silence, spill sepals and petals frothy with filaments and ruffles, loquacious little fountains self-released into sunshine, suddenly aware of the greater world.
Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves. –Diane Ackerman
Greek and Roman apothecaries prescribed iris seeds for ancients with indigestion, and unguents of iris were slathered onto battle wounds. Unguents. Please note how appropriately viscous that word is, how it sticks faithful like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. Egyptians creatively extracted exotic perfume from dried iris rhizomes (called orris root), which are incidentally also used to flavor gin. Peeled orris root gives off the delicious scent of violets. It was crushed and commonly used in baby powder, wig powder and toothpaste because, scent of violets. In Croatia the iris is named after the head of the Slavic pantheon, Perun, God of Thunder. Perunika grows wherever his lightning bolts strike the Earth, a tender compensation. In Kashmir the white iris kashmiriana is often planted on Muslim graves, a custom that stretches into Turkey and beyond. In medieval Florence where white irises grew out of the city walls, the fleur-de-lis, a stylized version of the blossom, became an emblem of the city. In 12th century France Louis VII deployed it on his standard. In post-Katrina New Orleans people tattooed themselves with it, a symbol of unity, renewal, resilience.
The fleur-de-lis, just so you know, is modeled on the blooms of a bearded iris. For irises can be bearded, beardless, or crested. There are dwarf bearded irises and tall bearded irises. There are also redundantly-named miniature dwarf bearded irises and oxymoronically-named miniature tall bearded irises. There are approximately as many kinds of irises as there are days in the year, and their names are often as enticing and enigmatic as the names of perfumes and paint shades, racing horses and seaworthy vessels. Vesper, Florentina, Dusky Challenger, Autumn Jester, Thornbird, Parting Glances, Ghost Writer, Gambling Man, Pagan Dance, Here Be Dragons, Petticoat Shuffle, Lady Friend, Early Light, Let Evening Come.
Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out.[…] a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently. — Margaret Atwood
What in your life is calling you, When all the noise is silenced, The meetings adjourned… The lists laid aside, And the wild iris blooms by itself in the dark forest… What still pulls on your soul? –Rumi
In the Springtime of 1889, after multiple bouts of self-harm and hospitalization, Vincent Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself into an asylum. His first week there he began one of his most famous works of art. “Irises” depicts a corner of the asylum garden. Vivid, abrupt, intimate, unsettling. Van Gogh’s vision unveils the incessant, unappeasable, grandeur of movement that always and ever denies the possibility of truly Still Life. The colossal dance of the cosmos reflected in leaf and grain, star and sunflower alike. The lone white iris in this multi-million-dollar masterpiece quiet, ghostly, offset in a roiling sea of color, has led to much conjecture. It steals into the heart like a gentle hand staying you a moment from the careless cares of the day, giving you perhaps a comet-swift inkling of what it might be like to look on this world through Van Gogh’s eyes, to carry like a cross the burden of its beauty. And perhaps it is not accidental that the iris is known in many places as the Sword lily, or Mary’s Sword of Sorrow. Over the next year (the last of his life) Van Gogh created close to 130 paintings. When he died he took the secret of the white iris with him to his grave.
“Now Thaumas married a daughter of deep-running Okeanos (Oceanus), Elektra (Electra), and she bore him swift-footed Iris, the rainbow.” – Hesiod, Theogony (trans. Evelyn-White)
In Greek mythology Iris is a minor goddess. Yes, someone saw fit to pull rank on celestial beings this way–Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are another case in point. One might surmise that to be a minor goddess is to be an oxymoron. Akin to being a minor apocalypse. But no. Being a heavenly resident doesn’t automatically make you a big deal. Some heavenly deals are apparently bigger than others and if you are others then you are automatically a minor deal. That is how it goes more often than not in the cosmos, at least until we know better (which is hopefully soon). But back to Iris, deemed (for now at least) a minor goddess of the Greeks. Luminous daughter of a marine god, and a cloud nymph, begat by sea and sky, the joy of all who beheld her.
In statues, paintings, poems and dreams, Iris is shapely of form, sparkling of eye, pitchered of hand. The ancients believed she used this convenient container to replenish the rain clouds with water from the sea. When not in use restocking clouds with their silvery wares, this pitcher was sometimes dispatched, and Iris with it, by Zeus (who among the Greek pantheon does by far, the lion’s share of dispatching), to collect water from the river Styx, solely for the purpose of testing a dubious god’s (or goddess’s) veracity. Divine being or not, speak falsely under oath of the water Styx and you will be rendered unconscious for a year, and then barred for nine years after from any and all godly feasts, festivities, boardrooms, conferences, and meet ups (a much dreaded punishment, for apparently even the gods require a thriving social network for healthy self-esteem.)
Perhaps, on a day when all the clouds were brimful and all deities were trustworthy, coastal Greeks saw Iris temporarily unemployed, a lovely young lady of leisure, reaching a hand out to each of her parents, and skipping between them on a rainbow arch, connecting this realm with another. A bridge between worlds, a radiant presence and a possibility. And so it was perhaps that she became Iris of the Rainbow, entrusted with tenderly chaperoning the departed from our world to the next. And you must admit, regardless of what you believe about the afterlife, that if one must eventually make the journey (and one must), from this spinning Earth with its dolphins, and doughnuts, its rickshaws and rhododendrons, its tightrope walkers, weather reports and wireless routers, to an undisclosed destination, then there is no better way to do it than on the gleaming curve of a rainbow, accompanied by a minor goddess who has never let a cloud go thirsty.
Because they are beautiful and shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow (save for true red), iris flowers are the goddess’s namesake. It became customary to plant iris flowers on the graves of young women who had died, as a way of inviting divinity’s presence on the journey to the hereafter. Because these flowers are perennials, they rise from the sleeping earth each year, floral resurrections. At a time when the language of irises seems all but forgotten, they pierce the soil with their proud, pointed leaves, their stems bearing angled buds, from which extraordinary flowers babble forth. When the world speaks in green tongues it is hard not to be baffled and beguiled. Irises remind the world that presence and absence are inseparable. That which arrives is always departing, and that which departs is always and also arriving.
Under this fine rain I breathe in the innocence of the world. I feel coloured by the nuances of infinity. At this moment I am one with my picture. We are an iridescent chaos. – Paul Cezanne
If you have ever glimpsed a rainbow shimmering in an oil slick, a hummingbird’s throat, a butterfly wing, peacock feather or a soap bubble you have witnessed iridescence. This quality of being rainbow-like has its roots in the word iris.
Some words are ill-chosen, like pulchritude, which means beauty but sounds more like a type of stomachache, or an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth. Other words are perfectly chosen, fitting their meaning like a snail fits her shell, like extravaganza, discombobulation, and iridescence.
Iridescence is born when light encounters certain physical structures whose features cause its waves to stumble into one another. The way encountering certain kinds of beauty can cause us to fumble for words, forget how to properly use our feet, and fling ourselves headlong into sidewalk shrubbery. Science calls this phenomenon interference and it is of two types; destructive and constructive. Destructive interference occurs when the crests and troughs of the stumbling waves cancel each other out, dimming their reflected light. This is akin to the type of interference humans encounter in the form of meddling relatives and heavy-handed upper management. In constructive interference, the crests and the troughs of the stumbling waves line up together perfectly. Light waves superimposed in this way reinforce and vivify one another, heightening the vibrancy of their reflected color. That which was moderately red, for instance escalates into the very reddest of reds, the epitome of redness. The way soulmates meeting suffuse into the very them-est versions of themselves. Because these two types of interference happen simultaneously, like a dance floor filled with a random combination of incredibly uncoordinated dancers and phenomenally synchronized ones, as the viewer’s viewing angle shifts, the colors of the iridescent object seem to skitter and slide unpredictably towards muting or muchness depending on the varying degrees of destructive and constructive interference at play.
This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colorful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Regardless of where you behold iridescence in the world, you behold it through your iris– the flat, ring-shaped membrane whose varied tints recall to mind the rainbow, hence its name. Composed of connective tissue and muscle the iris responds to the play of light by contracting or relaxing to narrow or broaden the window through which light voyages from our outer world and vanishes into our inner one, setting intricate spirals of synaptic dominoes tumbling, giving rise to a furiously rich and entangled set of notions and emotions exponentially faster than the fastest among us can spit out lickety-split.
Look closely into the eyes of your beloved, your cat, your postman or the traveler seated next to you on the bus, and you will fall into a mysterious, mapless universe, gorgeous in its strangeness and filled with unique landmarks bearing names more worthy of Tolkien than medical textbooks. The topography of the iris is as weird and wonderful as any undiscovered alien planet you can conjure in your imagination.
Fusch’s crypts are the areas that look like furrows, the places where seedlings would be planted if you were considering planting seedlings in your iris, they are places where collagen fibers are less dense. The white spots are Wolfflin nodules — which sound like something an irate wizard might inflict on you but are in reality simply hotspots of collagen fibers. The dark spots that look like tiny black holes in a small galaxy are Nevi and the product of a localized increase in pigment production. And no I am not making any of this up. Cross my heart, hope to fly.
A google search might tell you that iris recognition is “an automated method of biometric identification that uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques on video images of one or both of the irises of an individual’s eyes, whose complex patterns are unique, stable and can be seen from some distance.” You may also learn that there are now several hundred million persons across several countries in our world who have been enrolled like schoolchildren in summer camp, in iris recognition systems for “convenience purposes” [I believe in the future–and hopefully for everyone’s sake, the none-too-distant one–there will be millions of people motivated to do brilliant things strictly for inconvenience purposes. Like being the Goddess of Twine and Doing Things Slowly.]
What a google search will not tell you is that you are inlaid with iris recognition systems that glint within you as gorgeously as rubies in a Mughal scabbard. Iris recognition systems will stop you on a Spring sidewalk to stare at and sip from a clutch of flowers despite the formidable length of your to-do-list, and the considerable heft of your responsibilities. Iris recognition systems will lightly toss your heart like a beating golden ball into your throat when you catch sight of a rainbow arching like a runaway poem across a prosy sky. Iris recognition systems will make you count the jeweled flash of a hummingbird’s throat when you are tallying up your bounty of blessings, will drop you down a never-ending chute into the heart of the heart of your heart as you gaze into the supernatural landscape of another’s gaze, will fill you with pleasure so utter it brushes the border of pain, and teaches for once and all time the relatedness of every one and every thing.
Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak. –Mary Oliver
Our friends brought us a rose bush –our first and only. They said they chose it because it spoke sweetly. And it did. (Not all roses do). We planted it in our fledgling garden. Dug a deep hole in a suitably sunlit corner, gently persuaded this beauty out of its pot, fragrant soil still clinging to its roots, placed it carefully in the ground. Then we proceeded to water it, with tender admiration and irrational optimism. Picture a rose bush, the size of a toddler, lush with emerald leaves, and studded with sunset blooms. Roses with rouged orange petals, brilliantly colored and just big enough to lose yourself in. Also fat buds swollen with gossip, teetering on the brink of gorgeous indiscretion. Some rose bushes are stand-offish, regal but removed. Ours was charming, unpretentious, easy to love.
It is relevant at this juncture, to remind you that we have deer in these hills. Herds that you will chance upon, poised prettily in driveways and front yards, sometimes even on sidewalks, like uncannily realistic garden statuary. They frequent our home with some regularity and are welcome here. I will look out the window and see them stepping delicately up the little path that leads to the tumbledown slope of our backyard. They arrive with a polite and expectant air, like customers walking into a restaurant where they’ve made a reservation. “Party of five,” I will sometimes murmur to my husband. Almost I am tempted to greet them with a tray of water glasses, pass out menus for their perusal. But they do not need menus. Our backyard, with its towering cypress, it’s unkempt bottlebrush shrubs, it’s berry bushes, ivy covered fence and crumbling, uneven stone terraces, is their buffet. Sometimes they come when we are fast asleep in bed. A loud clattering will temporarily rouse us from our slumbers and then, “It’s just the deer,” one of us will say, and we will tumble back into dreamland, while our four-legged friends stroll across our wooden deck, towards the immovable feast of our aspiring garden.
Roses, we had been informed are a much sought-after delicacy in the Kingdom of Deer. To make your rose bush unassailable involves encasing it in fencing or netting. But there is something about these sensible approaches that is too cage-like for my liking. My taste in gardens runs towards the tangled and wild. I admire, but do not aspire to manicured lawns and neatly ordered grounds. I prefer gardens that are loosely choreographed, spontaneous. Gardens that lean towards the green edge of chaos. Looking for alternatives I turn to the wisdom of the internet. A quick search reveals that in this battle of wits between gardeners and deer, humans do not often emerge as victors. The preventative measures we have evolved, while wonderfully creative and occasionally even successful, are far from being reliably effective. But some have the saving grace of being entertaining. For instance, there is the Irish Spring technique which involves suspending bars of this cheerfully named soap from tree branches, and tying them onto stakes. There is also the Stinky Spray method which involves boiling a mixture of garlic cloves, cayenne pepper, dish soap, apple cider vinegar and spraying the resultant concoction over your garden plants (while being sure to stand up wind). Is it just me, or is it a trifle absurd, and also a little bit adorable, that as a species we have put a man on the moon, we have figured out how to break the sound barrier and are on the verge of popularizing self-driving cars, but when it comes to protecting flowers from deer raids, our most advanced response is stringing up bath soap, and mixing inconceivably horrid-smelling potions over the kitchen stove?
Not being drawn to the aesthetic of soap bars a-dangling in the backyard, I went the olfactory assault route. I boiled up an unthinkably awful smelling concoction, out of a series of individually benign ingredients. In combination they resulted in a far from aromatic brew that managed to waft its way into every nook and cranny of our small home, prompting us to hastily open all the windows and depart for a very long walk — but only after I had filled a spray bottle and liberally sprayed our ethereal rose bush with this anything-but-ethereal potpourri of Awfulness. As we propelled ourselves speedily away from the garden we wondered whether our strategy was going to prove over-effective, keeping not just deer at bay, but any and all creatures possessed of a nose. Ourselves included.
A day went by, then two, and three, and our ornamental garden shrub stretched new leaves into the sun, opened the tight flushed fists of its buds into ridiculously generous blooms. The deer were nowhere to be seen and I rejoiced at the sage wisdom of the internet that had so sagely been applied. Feeling self-congratulatory and complacent I neglected to respray the bush at the end of a week, figuring the deer would have no way of knowing if I were to delay by a day. I underestimated their vigilance. The next morning I gazed out our window and wondered why the rose bush looked so much smaller than it had the last evening. And why there were so many stubby little branches sticking out in all directions, devoid of any leaves, and why were there only two roses left when yesterday there had been almost a dozen. It took a full minute for me to comprehend the obvious. The deer had visited. But why I wondered had they left the two roses? Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, an attempt at compromise. “We take the bush, you take these two perfect flowers.” All is fair in love and war and gardening. I sprayed the bush with less conviction than I had the previous week. My faith in its powers, like the rose bush itself, sadly diminished. That night a rustling sound from the garden roused me from slumber. I flicked on the garden light and peered through the slats of our blinds, straight into the delicate face of a young deer with her mouth full of roses.
As a child I would sometimes save up the last bite of chocolate, the last sweet in the jar. For later. I would say to myself. And through the course of the day I carried knowledge of the stored-treat, like a shiny pebble in my pocket. To be fingered surreptitiously at various intervals, releasing the thrill of anticipation. Every event in childhood is experienced more than once. There is the event itself and then the innumerable times it is lived prospectively. And so perhaps it is with other creatures as well. I imagine the young deer in our garden the previous night. I do not think it is unlikely that this train of thought played itself out in her sleek head: ‘Today I will eat all but two of these delicious rose custards. Tomorrow I will come back when the moon is full and the birds fast asleep, and I will eat these last two delicacies with unhurried grace, and strong-jawed determination.
To have a rose bush in your garden is a sweetly scented gift. But it is also, and this fact may surprise you, a gift, to find in your garden, a deer, haloed by moonlight, gazing at you with soft, attentive eyes, as she thoughtfully partakes of the very last of the last of your roses. Velvet orange petals, lush green leaves, woody stems, crimson thorns all pulled into the fearless cavern of her mouth. An appetite for life that strikes you as remarkable, and unequivocally deserving of all your pretty roses. Yes every last one.
And perhaps we can all learn to be such unflinching connoisseurs. Perhaps we too will someday stand, in a sliver of moonlight, feasting on the jeweled and thorny gifts of our world.