A full moon flips
Into night sky
Heads or Tails?
What will you call? —
Earth in the balance.
A full moon flips
Into night sky
Heads or Tails?
What will you call? —
Earth in the balance.
Necessity knows no magic formulae-they are all left to chance. If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders. — Milan Kundera
There are days when I look out the window without meaning to, as if my glance had been commanded by a consciousness beyond that typically called my own. And I catch, not the sight but, the sense of a bird. The briefest of blurs, a velocity of being, accompanied by a communication whose unmistakable imperative is simply: LOOK.
I have an unaccountable conviction in these moments, unlikely as it seems to my rational mind, that I am being summoned to witness something. Someone. But I cannot will my way into such witnessing. I can only intend and then forget. So that the surface of my mind moves unselfconsciously, while the depths have been readied.
Sometimes it takes a couple of days. I feel a quiet, almost imperceptible surge, but my gaze is belated, catches its breath not on bird but on space freshly emptied of bird. Even these misses have their magic. And then comes the barefoot discovery– always barefoot– for there is never time for mind to pull on shoes, slip into slippers.
The first time I–felt– more than saw, the somersaulting shadow of wings, and was pulled to the window by the gravitational field of an invisible presence. Three perhaps four times this happened, over one afternoon and into the next. Then there he was. A young hawk perched on the wire closest to our home and lowest. An unusual bird placed in unusually close range. Those colors, those curves and angles enclosed in and enclosing such wild grace. A sense of young majesty, a presence aware of being within the radius of another’s awareness.
A little over a year earlier a turkey vulture had alighted, on the wire opposite our living room window. A hulking black-shouldered, red-headed bird gazing deliberately into the heart of our home, while my mother served hot dosas to a guest. No this had not happened before, and has never happened since. And yes there is a story, but for another time perhaps.
And then last week, while making breakfast (oatmeal), I turned (or was turned,) abruptly from hot stove toward kitchen window and caught a fluttering handkerchief. Small, black and flying, falling, dancing. I recognize, without knowing how, the movements of familiar birds. I do not dissect the invisible warp and weft of their intricate weaving. I could not describe it to you even if I care to, but am glad for the quiet backdrop of their daily and dynamic craft. This pattern even peripherally caught, was unfamiliar. Less subtle, more demanding of audience. Snared I walked to the window searching for the bird behind the show. At first nothing but empty driveway and branches and sky– and then he materialized.
An immediately likable bird of an immediately likable size. Charcoal-smudged body with a roguish, tousled head and such an unafraid, arrested quickness in his being. A purposeful sense of pause. “You’ve been seen,” I told him silently. Perhaps he was unconvinced, or perhaps he was simply being sociable. Either way when I stepped outside several minutes later, he flew past me and perching on nearby branch proceeded to sing a single note. So sweetly, single-mindedly, so persistently that I could not help but think he was telling me something. I noted then, his white breast, how it peaked crisply between his dark lapel feathers. How oddly formal he appeared, how like a bird in a tuxedo. A dapper bird who had remembered to dress for the occasion–but had forgotten to comb his hair. And all the while he sang his tail pumped, keeping time. He watched and sang as I watered the plants. Unfazed by my size, my species, my lack of song. I watched him watching me and wondered where he had come from, where he was going. Wondered who and what he was.
A search for mettlesome black bird with white breast brought him up immediately on my screen. A flycatcher — a Black Phoebe. A songbird, I am informed, that does well around humans and is known to sit on low perches in backyards and keep up a running series of chirps while scanning the horizon for edible insects. The most wonderful thing I learned about this bird is that the male of the species will show his mate possible nest sites by hovering in front of them for approximately ten seconds awaiting her ay or nay. She will make the final decision on where they nest. An arrangement that strikes me as eminently sensible on all fronts.
All morning I cannot shake the sense of his presence. Finally I take out my brushes, a paint set and begin. In London and New York passersby can get their portraits painted in a matter of minutes by gifted street artists. In the backyard of our little home, certain feathered individuals, unconcerned with quality or self-image can get theirs painted by a rapturous amateur, for a song.
It does not have a name, and I do not know nearly enough give it one. The birds are privy to it though. This impulse that leaps my gaze to the window, this force that draws being forth and tangles my fibers with the pulsating beauty of this world, destabilizing strictly human concerns, re-centering perception.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers, said Dickinson, and perched it in the soul—where it–
“sings the tune without the words–
And never stops–at all–”
If I had to wager a guess I’d say she was privy to it too.
And if there’s no bread to be had tonight I will eat words she said
I’ll sprinkle them all with pepper and salt, and gobble them up in bed.
If light is a language and sunset a sermon
And dusk is a tribesman in deep purple turban
Then why speak in words that will ruin the night?
When nothing that’s said can ever be right.
Bright lights on the hillside no stars in the sky
My heart it is heavy and it won’t tell me why
The frogs they do croak and the crickets they chafe
While alone at the window I stand like a waif
Though my life it be full of love and its singing
It harbors still shadows of pain and its stinging.
Who put the cluck in the chicken and
Sharpened each green blade of grass?
Who rouged the cheeks of the sunset and
Filled the blue rivers with bass?
I’ve scoured the world for the artist
Whose skill grazes everything
I haven’t glimpsed her yet, but once
I think I heard her sing.
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
“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.
Mockingbird, how well did the scientists name you! Mimus polyglottos. You marvelous many-tongued mimic. You clever, feathered virtuoso. Who was it who informed you that you were here to sing more than one song? Who encouraged your reckless plagiarism, and gave you permission to ransack the repertoire of the bluejay and the blackbird, the cricket, the creaky gate, and the car alarm, then advised you to stitch them together in a crazy patchwork quilt of sound? You oddly arranged chorus of one. You auditory sampler, you relentless composer. You impudent thief, you conspicuous performer, you bewildering talent! How can I make you understand how you held us in thrall? Perched high on a telephone wire, singing for love and invisible gods. Animated by an intensity and vigor that seemed not entirely of this earth. No, divinely inspired. How you delighted in your own music! As if it were a thing aside from you. How you fluttered up into the air, and then down again, as if lifted by the sheer, unfettered genius of your song. How striking and unmistakable you were in flight! With those broad white stripes on the pleated fan of your dark gray wingtips. How you did not stop singing to fly. How a river of sound streamed uninterrupted from between your beak. As if you could not help yourself. As if songs swell and pour out of you of their own accord. Heedless of your better judgement. Careless of your will. What is the secret of your enthusiasm, that your songs burst forth so cheerily, even in the black velvet depths of night? What powers your nocturnal serenades (up to a thousand songs in the span of an hour!) when most of us, worn ragged by the cares of day, are fast asleep and dreaming? Is it your specialized diet of barberries, beetles, hawthorn, and grapes, grasshoppers, and rose hips, pokeweed, and sassafras, blackberries and true bugs? [And excuse me, but how do you know, really, whether a bug is true or fraudulent? Is it the shifty eyes that give them away, or the nervous clearing of a slender throat, a tendency to fidget?] But I digress. The real question before us is this: who is it, or what, within you, that improvises with such verve and daring? You perched pandemonium. You bird-shaped tower of babel. You hue and cry, you miniature hubbub, interspersed with arias and anthems, and chants and lays and lullabies. Were all the wheezy and the raspy notes of the world, all the molten trills, and high, clear whistles, the indignant squawks, the chitter and chatter, the murmurs and babbles, and operatic asides lying patiently in wait for one such as you, to come along and recognize their deep kinship to one another? Waiting for one with courage and class enough, to say, ‘This too belongs. This too is part of my song. This too I will sing, and surprise you. With my gravity and wit, my playful juxtapositions, my sly brilliance, my magnanimity and keen ear, my drollery, and lack of disdain.’ You discerning birdling. You singing sleekness. You wandering minstrel. We who are wingless and earthbound, we who are sometimes proud and often petulant and regrettably stuck in the one same song, look up at you and listen. And listening hear, just how much more we have to sing about. Had we but courage enough and class. To admit it all.
And now there is a blue lilt to the air, a gauzy greenness an unmistakable shimmer that runs through the days. (I have lived the taste of this before in another time and place — but when and where?) Just around the bend in the road lies that fairytale ball, Spring. Every blade, every branch, every blossom in the kingdom is invited. Who can resist such excitement?
See how the world readies itself for festivities with ribbons and jewels. Young oak leaves unfurling from tight casings hypnotic green, camellias tossing ruffled candy pink skirts, queenly irises yawning purple and gold, tremulous tulips breaking like dawn, jonquils and daffodils nodding dainty heads, straight-backed lavender spearing the air, starry faced jasmine bursting out of sharp-tipped buds, brilliant poppies catching sunlight like a lucky penny, wisteria with its tumbling grape-like clusters scenting the world with wisterious allure.
I stumble amidst the incandescent beauty of this neighborhood in the hills. These domestic paths so familiar and full of wild surprise. I am taken by the paradox of this spontaneous orchestration. And its grand scale! The thrill of rising sap, the delicate aura of ripening, the extravagance of an indomitable force animating the particular and the universal, propelling the one and many in an ancient cycle. And why does this feel both searingly new and hauntingly accustomed?
One night I wake from a dream and the darkness is a riptide of memories that pulls me back to the wide staircase of a convent college on Cathedral Road in a seaside city in Southern India. If you do not know it it does not matter. If you do, then you know how we streamed up those stairs like an improbable river of flowers, a river of stars. With our books and our timetables, our handwritten notes, our unruled foreheads. How we sat on the wooden benches of higher education as the world rained down upon us. How our minds broke casually into blossom. How we thrived on canteen samosas, coffee and conversation. The sky a brilliant blue tent of possibility. The future a languorous cat. This life an all-absorbing romance.
How we floated through that time and space like dust motes, like winged seeds, like dragonflies in a ray of sunlight. Gleaming with energies that arced far beyond our single selves, charged with prolific dreams, and inchoate ideas, untethered potential. How we lived that springtime of our lives unbeknownst to ourselves with such dazzling perfection.
And now we are where we are, scattered across the world wrapped in cherished roles, older yes, wiser perhaps, another bend in the road before us. Another springtime beckoning. And who can resist such excitement?
Only those who overthink it.
The flower is always the bud’s undoing. Let go then. Step into the river, lean into the wind, let the strength of the earth rise through you. Watch your fingertips burst into bloom.
There is something arresting and unearthly about a magnolia tree in flower. Something that dances between divinity and dementia. A whirling dervish of a tree. Bursting with grace and an utter lack of restraint. See how it holds up its leafless branches. A candelabra, extravagantly ablaze with lunatic blossoms and zero sense of rationing or self-preservation. See how these flowers, some the size of your clenched fist, some the size of your whole hand, yawn open, with such unrestrained ardor it nearly turns them inside out. See how they do not bloom so much as detonate, in a series of soft explosions. See how like the fleshy tongues of dragons they are. These enormous creamy petals streaked with sunset shades. How their thick scent drugs the air. Drowns all thought in sweetness. An ancient tree architected for prehistoric times. Magnolias have bloomed on earth for 100 million years. Yes. These flowers opened above the heads of dinosaurs, long before humankind was a twinkle in the eye of the universe. And because they predate even the bees, their propagation across time and space was left to outsized beetles, who stricken with wanderlust stumbled across these velvety inner chambers. Kicked up a dusty cloud of pollen and unleashed a long chain of events that unfurled across the last Ice Age, and into the Stone Age and alongside the rise and fall of nameless tribes and civilizations, and the creation of the printing press, the steam engine, frothy cappuccinos and the birth of the internet, leading improbably to this very tree. Here. The one directly in front of me. The one my husband strolls under at the exact moment that a little lick of wind decides to kick up its heels. A handful of petals drift gently over him like a benediction. An origami instant that folds itself into my palm. Dear and delicate as a paper crane. Later I will look up what magnolia flowers symbolize. Nobility, beauty, dignity….Dignity…I think about the word. How it stands tall and runs deep and how much it has to do with integrity and how little with being — normal. I think about this outlandish tree that traces back to Time’s cradle, and its flowers that open alarmingly wide as if to swallow the sun, the way it gives itself madly to the moment. With radical generosity and no reservation. And what wouldn’t be possible — if we could learn to live like that.
A woman on a November morning is watching a squirrel beneath her window. In a small patch of dirt and grass and sunshine she sees him foraging. If asked she would be hard pressed to describe the color of his fur. It is a shifting landscape of grey, brown, white and black. His tail is a dancing plume. Everything about him is quick, alert, vigorous. He is alive, she thinks to herself, in a way that it is hard to be alive if you have been sitting in front of a screen much of the day instead of sprinting up and down tree trunks scouting out the choicest acorns and burying them in secret caches. Every so often he stands up on his hind legs and looks around to ensure that neither the government nor the blue jays are spying on him. [Just to be safe he relocates his stash a couple of times]. When he stands up, his front paws that functioned until that moment as legs, instantly become hands. In this stance he looks, astonishingly, like a little person. He picks things up, examines and eats them in a way that is quite human. But his jaw works more rapidly than any person alive. She marvels at his resourcefulness and pragmatism. This ability to find food in backyard flora and the foresight he has to put aside a portion of it for leaner times. She has read that squirrels, while admirably meticulous about burying their acorns, have a less than impeccable track record when it comes to retrieval. Lost in the myriad details of the squirrely life they are known to foolishly forget where they left their loot, in the way that humans stumbling out of airports and shopping malls, have trouble remembering where they parked their cars. But squirrel hoarding is not the same as human hoarding. Squirrels for instance have not been known to open Swiss bank accounts or shop at Costco. Also their hoarding habits frequently result in the birth of oak trees. It can be said with reasonable surety that human hoarding has yet to yield any such magnificent outcomes. And it occurs to her suddenly that human greed and negligence have destroyed forests that the squirrels’ acquisitive and forgetful nature helped plant. And it is at this precise moment that the squirrel beneath her window looks up. With a gaze so clear-eyed, vibrant, and empty of accusation, that she feels at once chastened and forgiven on behalf of her kind.
I wish you could have seen her as I did, in the early morning light. A little bird perched on the rearview mirror of our parked car. Alone and utterly unaware of her audience. She tips her body over the edge and for a brief moment thoughtfully surveys herself upside down. Then shoots up into the air like a firecracker, a feathered bundle of urgency, and attempts to fly directly into her reflection. Over and over again she repeats this sequence of steps. Undaunted by the obdurate glass or her head-on failure. Perhaps the sight of the slight, bright-eyed being in the mirror has moved her to admiration and compassion. “Don’t worry you beautiful creature,” she seems to be saying, “I see you — and I am coming to get you!” Standing there, I am captivated by how captivated she is by the bird-in-the-glass. How fiercely determined she is to make contact, to establish a birdly bond with the mythical “other”. She is oblivious to the situation’s impossibility. And I wonder if she is getting dizzy in the head. I wonder what her beak is made of. I wonder if she is driven by loneliness, nobility or a bit of both. “You sweet, silly bird!” I whisper. Close to an hour later she is still at it. And I wonder suddenly, what would happen, if you could catch a glimpse of yourself in this world and not know that it was you. I believe you too would be transfixed by the fragile beauty you saw. I believe you too would try, against reason and hope, to befriend the breathing miracle that you are.