She lay on her side on the pavement. When we found her, she had already been flapping in vain for hours, baking in the unseasonable heat.
My mother-in-law had planted milkweed in the hope of attracting Monarchs. And it had worked. The butterflies came and fluttered about for days. They lay eggs that hatched into larvae that were eaten or disappeared.
But one was different. She had found her way onto a wall where she had spun a chrysalis and had hung silent until this morning when a beautiful wet winged Monarch had emerged.
During the day, though, something had gone wrong. Her wings were not tucked properly and she could not fly.Sponsored
I considered how if given a chance, in her own short life she could accomplish more, proportionally, than I ever would. She would travel unimaginable distances, buffeted by wind and rain and smoke toward a destination she had never known.
We stopped what we were doing and picked her up and nestled her in some milkweed. She allowed us to reset her wing. She clambered weakened, her wings now erect. We left her in the garden shade.
By the evening she had died.
Saddened, I sat in the warm dark. I thought of this fragile miracle that survives less often than not. These gossamer things journey the length of the Americas. The Monarch is not a butterfly. She’s a system, comprised of wing, and plant and wind and temperature and even ourselves. And when the system works, the migration, the annual improbable pulse of life continues. And that pulse is now threatened. But like her, we still have to try, I thought. We have to stop. We have to observe. We have to listen.
A deluge of rain outside, though the air is saturated with a brilliant light.
Perhaps these are not great things, but they are the small matter that is my life.
I intended to reflect this morning on this slightly beyond the midpoint, but instead I found myself texting the son of a friend who sat somewhat bored in his high school history class in Rhode Island.
Why?Because he faces forward.And because I am facing back.And I can’t help but think that he could use an outstretched hand if not from me, than perhaps his future self.Someone perhaps to just assure him that everything is going to be alright.
On most days I work on the creek.Our friends call it Frog Creek, but I call it the Mighty Froggy. I imagine it as having the grandiosity of the Mississippi, the potent history of the Ganges, the raging force of the Amazon.
But it’s really just a little creek that cuts across the property.
And when asked, I tell people that I’m restoring it, but really I just spend a few hours each day carrying about buckets of dirt and stone debris and placing fallen branches against the banks.
I watch how the water flows.I’ve learned a little bit about water and silt.I’m slowly learning the personality and rhythm’s of this little stretch of water and the plants and animals that co-inhabit it.I tell myself that by doing this I am making the world a better place.
Granted, it’s not much.So little in fact, that my wife rightly asks if that’s what I want to be doing with my life.
The answer is, well, no.But it is, in fact, what I am doing.For whatever that’s worth.
On the occasion of his fortieth birthday, Joseph Brodsky wrote
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
Even with an additional 14 years logged, my life has lacked such grandeur.I have braved neither wild beasts nor steel cages.Depending of course on what kind of steel cages to which one might be referring.
Brodsky was born in Leningrad, but I might hazard that he was really born in St. Petersburg, or affectionately known as Pyötr by native born Russians.
His language seems to predate all things Soviet. And his body now sleeps in the San Michelle Cemetery, in the Venice lagoon, in the spit of that city that he so loved, the canaled dream that he ventured to only in winter because it reminded him of some foggy glassine version of the city from which he’d come.
Fitting that the rising oceans will subsume equally his native city and his final resting place.
The summer after he won the Nobel prize I was in Moscow during the optimistic dead center years of perestroika.I was there on a general tourist visa under the auspices of Volunteers for Peace which sponsored non-traditional tourism in the Soviet Union.While there, the organizer, Peter Coldwell from Vermont, fell ill, or broke his back or legs or something, and he had to return home.I was one of the few participants who spoke a bit of Russian so he asked me to assist two graduate students at Moscow State University in coordinating things for the group.
The day after Peter left, however, the students, pulled all 25 of us together.They were exhausted, yet running on a kind of manic energy.They had to apologize.It was terrible, they said, but they had done the impossible.It had taken days, but an opportunity had presented itself and at unheard of pace and through good fortune they had commandeered the necessary papers and resources. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, they tearfully explained, for which they had to abandon everything. In a few hours they would board a plane and they would fly to New York City in America.They were going to visit Joseph Brodsky.
You are in charge, now, they told me.And one sobbed and hugged me as he stepped off the bus.I’m so sorry we are letting you all down, he said.I am so sorry.
On my 54th birthday I wonder about those two graduate students.And I wonder about the conversations that they must have had with the poet.
And I wonder if this in fact even happened, or if it happened in the way that I recall.If our lives are composed of memories and those memories themselves are suspect, then what really do we have left to call our own?
We all are in the process of dying.
I think today of friends who, if not dying, are driving perilously close to the abyss.And I can say for certain that such a vantage, despite its commensurate fear and sadness, promotes a heightened if not unwelcome sense of living.That’s not meant as a consolation because there can be none.So it stands only as an assertion of limited truth.
I think of you all because you’re the ones I want in the room right now.
This morning I also binge listen to my daughter’s music.I listen to her all of seventeen singing on an open stage one of the first songs she had ever written.
She writes far more fluently than I ever did at her age. And I would trade all my future years for the youthfulness and competence and execution of her written voice.
So perhaps if ever there were to be a suggestion of what I’m feeling on this day, fifty-four years from when I was born, it would be this.
And I tell myself as I do each year, I am going to write something for you all.
I took a cue from my daughter’s cross country team and this morning took a Halloween Graveyard Run.
It made me appreciate even more the brilliance of the coaches. What better way to infuse young teenagers with a gratitude and love for their strength and beauty than to present them with a meditation on the mortality of their own bodies?
I grew up under the shadow of Harold and Maude which means I take a certain pleasure in cemeteries.
With a little help from Apple Maps I end up in the Santa Rosa Memorial Park. I like the name. It’s almost as good as the antiquarian graveyard, but with the sense that we go there to recreate and remember.
Today I do both.
My first circuit takes me through the new area of the park, utilitarian and efficient like everything else of the 21st century: neat rows of flat plaques are set into tightly trimmed grass and adorned with plastic flowers, revealing the restrictions again any sort of plantings. Clearly only one thing is intended to be planted here.
Which gives pleasure when I catch the click and whir of the sprinkler systems.
The dead have no shortage of wisdom. And I like them for that.
And there’s no shortage of loss in this place. And probably no shortage of entreaties. Please help. Someone. Please. Just help.
On the periphery of the yard, I catch sight of a memorial bench. The fellow was only 51 when he went on. But a good guy he was. He promises me, a complete stranger, that in exchange for my visit, he’ll forever look after me. It’s quite a commitment if you stop to think about it. It’s far greater than any of us can offer to one another. This guy is actually out there. Gosh knows what powers he has.
And he reminds me that it’s okay. I’m on my run. And runs are all about one step at a time. I’m there. I’m with him. And that gives me a strange strength.
I set on my way, but realize that the commitment goes both ways. I turn back.
His name was Parker.
John Lowe Parker.
It would heed all of us to remember.
I eventually find my way to the old part of the cemetery. And there’s the gem. The whole hilly range has been turned over to a native oak restoration area. Unmaintained, the headstones tilt and fall akilter; the trails settle under deep swaths of fallen leaves. I run through here and absorb the life and the loss and the longing.
Grave, where is thy victory?
There is no death here. Instead, the abundance of autumn and the wealth of these glorious trees.
Rain sweeps in from the ocean and drenches coastal California. The Penguin Dinghy, however, rests safe and dry in the Room of Requirement.
With the rain and all, we go to Los Angeles It is Persian New Year.
Once upon a time there was a wisp girl who lived in the city of Los Angeles. One evening she leapt from her bed and in doing so she ripped a toenail off. The little girl was far closer to the beginning premise of her life than we may be to our own demise. Hardly seven years old, her materiality was still fresh and barely set, hardly removed from that time in which she didn’t exist at all. What did she remember, if anything, from that world that preceded her? Maybe for this reason she couldn’t distinguish a wound from a fatal wound. Any injury might be a summons from death. She sat on the floor, cradled her toe and considered her own mortality. Baba, she wept. I don’t want to die. I am too young. I don’t want to die.
Once upon a time on a living room table in Pasadena, the Nowruz goldfish swam in their small bowl. They had been brought into the house as a harbinger of the New Year. But did they know why they swam in the bowl? Or even that they were they and that they swam in a bowl at all? Did they know they had meaning? That they were living fire in a globe of water and the embodiment of spring?
Once upon a time we drove to a shabby boulevard in Westwood in a heavy downpour to purchase saffron, halwa, flat bread, jordan almonds, pistachios, whole fish and tea. The rain was so heavy that the freeway traffic on the I-10 slowed to a crawl and it was as if the world had become cemented with water and we had returned to our amphibious selves.
Once upon a time there was a little girl in Tehran who so badly wanted a goldfish for Nowruz that she schemed with her brother and pestered her mother until the woman finally relented and handed over a 500 toman note. The little girl journeyed to the market and lost her money twice and was scared and sad and elated. She met snake charmers and merchants and a soldier who offered to help. The girl, trapped yet in her childhood felt for the first time a glimmer of the predation of men and of a looming world beyond.
But the girl never existed. And yet when the poor thing sat on the curb outside the market, staring through the sewer grate at her banknote just out of reach, future violations even further beyond her consciousness, she hardly thought to consider our existence. In her world, none of us witnesses and sylphs existed as even a consideration. We were nothing at all.
Mid-day I went down to visit Frenchie, our neighbor next door who had come home to die. Her daughter called because Frenchie needed to be moved and the daughter wasn’t strong enough to do it.
Frenchie is 88, a feisty Quebecois. Her husband, now gone, was from Montreal. Over half a century ago they had bought their cottage in Sebastopol as a weekend retreat and eventually moved up here. She was a devoted gardener who waged perennial war on the gophers. She held dominion over this area as residents came and went and the old Gravenstein apple farmers grew old and went on. In later years she filled her home with stuffed animals to keep her company. Her menagerie, she called it.
Frenchie lay on a bed in the living room, hooked to an oxygen tank. She still had fire in her, and when prompted she could eke out a yes or a no and a fierce yet gentle smile. You could feel the shimmering though, the giving way: her struggle was palpable. I stayed for a bit, and told her she was beautiful and strong. She was a lovely lovely woman.
It was a beautiful California day that felt to me strangely gray.
That evening Anna and I went to hear Jolie Holland at the Hopmonk. A founding member of The Be Good Tanyas, Holland came out of the Gulf Coast and her musical heritage has broad Acadian roots. I told Anna I felt so fragile, that I could feel Frenchie slipping such that any loss, even the closing of the damn record store in Sebastopol, felt like a sharp abrasion. It just felt so sad. Holland’s voice was sublime and provided some measure of relief, but nonetheless Anna and I were tired and we got in one of those kinds of fights that leave one drained and aching.
I fell asleep at home and awoke at 3 and couldn’t sleep. My chest compressed with that feeling of blank dread. I went downstairs and lay on the couch in the darkness, waiting and observing. I dreamt that I was on my way to Telluride but a snow began to fall and impeded my progress. The ache slowly dissipated. At some point I felt a release and opening up somehow and I fell into a thick slumber. At daybreak the dogs went mad with barking and raced to the windows.
Later Anna came and pulled me from my stupor. We should go see Frenchie, she said. I threw some clothes on and we walked down the road. Her son Louie stood in the dewy yard by the fence. She died this morning he told us. It’s funny, the others had all been dying lately. One 88 year old neighbor just last week. Frenchie was the last to go.
I later explained to Mazie that it’s like we’re a fabric, each person a knot of sentience in an immense dense weave. And as any one creature starts to go, unravel, whatever, the area of fabric around the knot shifts and shimmers and vibrates as that knot is unraveled into the nothingness. The description is of course not quite right, but perhaps close enough.
I lit a candle for Frenchie and let it burn for most of the morning. What is a flame, but the release of matter over time as light and heat and disintered material? A flame, be it life or fire, is again a verb, less a noun than a process. And when the time came, my breath pressed against the flame struggling to hold purchase on the wick. But the energy of the process couldn’t withstand the prevailing force which always is and it gave way and eventually extinguished. How does a flame go out? First there is the sequence of when it waves and bucks and bows. Followed by a brief flare before disappearing. The ember tip of the wick remains for another moment, burning yet before it too goes black. Then the long trail of whisping smoke that unfurls into space tracing designs and patterns until quite suddenly that too is gone. We are left with the dissipated carbon dioxide to be absorbed by plants and in quick cycle returned to life. And the inert stick of wax awaiting the next spark.
This is little white chicken. We don’t really have a name for her, so that’s what we call her. She’s also the sole survivor.
She started in a brood of five. All of her siblings were taken out by other animals. She was joined by a black Austrolope who was taken out as well. And then later we added three Bardrocks, all gone. She’s basically an Auschwitz survivor.
I’m writing about her because four weeks ago she took to roosting on the front porch. Up until then she was totally happy roosting in her coop. For two years, at dusk each night she’s gone in there and put herself to bed. It was fine. But four weeks ago her last sister was taken out by a dog right next to the coop. Ever since then, she’s been afraid to go to sleep in her customary home. So instead, at dusk, she goes up on the porch and puts herself to bed on the railing where it’s much more safe.
Let’s think this one through. She’s a chicken. But she prefers this to that. Even more fundamental, she can discern this from that. That means she has discernment. And she has preferences. Preferences and discernment define sentience. She is aware.
Furthermore, she doesn’t go near her old home because she associates it with the death of her sister (she was besides herself the morning it happened). She had an emotional response. A bunch of neurochemicals kicked off inside her. It doesn’t matter whether those neurochemicals expressed fear or sadness or anxiety. She felt something and associated that feeling with an event. She has chosen to sleep somewhere else because she will be safer. She feels and she is self-aware.
On Tuesday morning, I heard her going nuts in her coop. I looked out the window and saw the two dogs that killed her sister running about maybe 600 feet distant. They were hardly visible, let alone a threat. But she appeared to remember.
Each day she goes over to play with the chickens next door. She prefers this. Then she comes back with them to have a little party at our house. They eat and scratch through the compost pile. She prefers to be with other chickens. She craves the social interaction. She is a social animal who finds pleasure or safety or satisfaction in being with another living creature similar to herself.
In the evening the chickens return to their respective homes and put themselves to bed. And it begins all over again the next day.
Granted, she would have a hard time building a rocket ship. But then again, so would most human beings.
When can we stop privileging ourselves over others?
I thought of him while sitting on the Sonoma town square. No reason in particular, really, but I thought I’d look him up.
He committed suicide on January 8th of this year.
Acord was the subject of one of those 60 page New Yorker profiles way back a lot of years ago. He was a sculptor who ultimately completed only a handful of works: Monstrance for a Grey Horse, a few reliquaries, and a large portfolio of fine drawings of seedpods and nests and the like.
And yet the breadth of his mind and spirit were immense. He was at heart an alchemist who sought to transmute base unstable material into, well, something safe and eternal, into something else. He wanted to build a container to hold the sacrament of our age – nuclear material – and he dedicated decades of his life to the planning and carving of the Monstrance.
He spawned in me my affection for Barre granite – the hardest, most inert rock on earth. And he gave me faith to at least contemplate the big idea – the vastness of time or the true nature of materials. For years I’ve had a manila folder with his name on it containing information about him and his works.
I looked him up for some reason in Seattle back in 2001. He had just returned from a teaching gig in London. He felt gentle and doe-eyed and a bit forlorn and a bit suspicious, wondering why I wanted to talk with him. He talked about the bus system and he needed some rides around town, I think. Something about him felt off – he was living in Pioneer SQuare and he couldn’t quite hold his thoughts together and I realized something had happened to him between the carving of the Monstrance and now. It was as if the power of those things he was working with was too strong, and in the face of it, unlike that Barre granite, his consciousness had begun to shatter.
Ultimately he lost the strength to carry on. How strange to think of those hard crystals chiseled by his calloused hands, the malignant grin of the horses skull, of how it will remain yet, carrying forward for thousands of years into time a small vessel of highly radioactive uranium. One day it will be opened by nature or by beast. And that transformed material into this world will once again be released.