Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where in the World

This isn't a new piece. Just lonely for my friends and ruing the end of summer. Enjoy.

Light catches the paddle of a weed. A hummingbird perches on a low branch of shrub outside my window. The blue spruce, which worried us in the spring with its sagging lower limbs and dried needles, no longer languishes. The open arms of the tree take a hit during our long winters; it’s as though the limbs attempt to hold up the snow, a heavy burden that collects on its boughs and causes them to droop. By summer, however, the tree has rebounded and its glaucous needles are gloriously blue, its branches sheltering a few sun-struck weeds and a smattering of grass below.

Early summer is dreamy here on the shores of Lake Ontario. The peonies are still flamboyant, although defeated, their pink petals accumulating like lingerie in the ivy. The irises, similarly, have shed their labial purple petals and are morphing into papery brown husks. A few flowers linger on the bleeding heart, but they, too, are getting in their last licks. The new stars of the yard will be the roses and the hydrangea, the latter of which will persist into fall.

It’s summer, and my friends are gone. My human friends, I mean, not these flower and avian acquaintances who are delightful, for sure, but harbor the quality of substitute. In summer, my friends visit other shores; they travel, they vacation. I’m not quite as ambitious as Emerson, who said he’d walk a hundred miles for a good conversation, but I do crave contact when they’re are gone. That’s probably why I watch the hummingbirds, listen for the zipper sound of their arrival, a sound that becomes the background noise of my days, as though the buzz of their wings is always right at my shoulder. They like the nectar I’ve mixed for them; it’s a little heavy on the sugar and I think I’ve become the equivalent of the neighborhood crack dealer for the hummers. I’m not sure whether they’re sparring or flirting at the feeder; the hummingbird social scene is a literal blur. But they dart and dodge and confront and zoom and hide and reveal and when one seems to gain the upper hand and temporarily stakes its territory, it sends its long quick tongue deep into the glass globe that holds the sugar juice and drinks, drinks deeply. I admire these dervishes, colorful as flying paint; they seem like tough little creatures as they charge, meet eye to eye, wing to wing, in some repeated dance of delineation that seems to say this is mine or I want you.

The hummers and the roses and the peonies are reasonable companions, I’m saying, but it’s a companionship based on observation that inevitably turns into imagination. There’s only so far I can go in my scientific zeal before I turn poet and begin to anthropomorphize too much, sentimentalize, over-imagine. The natural world tends to send me into some rather lofty realms where I imagine a mutuality that likely doesn’t exist. The hummingbirds don’t notice me, for the most part, and when they do, they flee. I am not their friend. The trees, the flowers, the wind, the grass – if there’s a consciousness, if there’s any relationship between these features of the yard and me, it’s a mystical one, a spiritual one. Sometimes I sense that relationship, but the sensation is problematic, as I believe in no god.

It’s complicated, you see, and so is this longing I feel for my friends. I miss the flesh and blood of them, the substance of them. I miss their words. I can’t really talk, in any satisfactory fashion, after all, to the robins or the spruce. And although I can listen, and do, and can learn from such listening – The first duty of love is to listen, so says Paul Tillich – it’s human language I crave. Vowels and verbs, words strung out in interesting ways, like lanterns lining a dark walk. I miss, simply put, talking the talk.

And, to be precise, I’m not really referring to in-person conversations with my friends. I’m talking about their writing. I miss hearing from them. I miss their letters, their emails. When I wake up in the morning, although I am blessed to hear birdsong – what could be better? – I wake with this thought: “Maybe someone will write to me today.” Those words, that hope, gets me out of bed. Not the warblers, not the chittering of the hummingbirds, not the rush of wind or the sound of rain on the broad leaves of the hostas... The prospect of the written word – that incites me to rise.

I sometimes joke with friends that when one of us dies, I won’t want to know, exactly. Instead I’ll want to think, a little sadly, with some degree of denial that’ll look like perplexity, “Ah, Jo stopped writing. I wonder why…” That is my anticipated euphemism for the deaths of my friends: so-and-so simply stopped writing. “Have you heard from Marianna?” I’ll be asked. “No,” I’ll reply, slowly shaking my head and looking off into the distance. “She stopped writing…”

There’s a corollary to my hunger for words; it’s not just that I need to see writing on a page, words on a computer screen. It’s a little hard to explain so I’ll be direct: I need to know where my people are. The degree of urgency might require emphasis: I need to knowneed meaning I will panic, will feel anguish if I don’t – where my friends are on the planet. I want to know what country they’re in, what city or town they’re in, I want to have some faith that their normal routines are intact, want to know whether those routines temporarily incorporate the local surroundings. Are A and B having breakfast overlooking the beach; will X shower after a run; is L brushing back her hair, idly, while daydreaming through a novel, and so on. When I know the customary location of a friend is about to change – when they travel – I become anxious. I can’t sleep. I want their itineraries. I want, as I half-jokingly requested of friends heading off on a trip this week, for them to strap GPS receivers to their ankles and feed me the signal while they’re gone.

That doesn’t happen, of course. My friends leave, or I leave, and for a few days or weeks we are, as we say, out of touch. I don’t hear from them and, therefore, cannot listen. And maybe that means the second duty of love is to endure silence. To wait. Or to turn, temporarily and perhaps insufficiently, to a kind of alternative conversation. I’d like to decipher the maneuverings of the hummingbird, I’d like to understand the night calls of bats or the soulful trembling choreography of the trees. Vocabulary is everywhere. But when my friends are gone, all I hear are wings, and although I recognize no god, I recognize – I listen to – these angels.

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