Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Saturation of Rain

We are on the cusp of October, my favorite month. But September wants its full due, and rain is the name of the game this week as we trickle out its last few days. “Trickle” is nearly literal, although a bit of an understatement -- we’ve been sequestered under gray skies, the steady rhythm of rain providing consoling background music. I’m not given to romanticizing the rain -- as much as I enjoy the way it sounds, I become anxious when I feel quarantined, annoyed at having to deal with the weather, peeved that I and my students will get drenched walking from building to building on the way to school and then sit shivering through class. I try to keep my moodiness at bay by succumbing to the cardboardy patter of drops on the broad-leafed hostas outside my window. I hear splatter on the stone walls and driveway, and the quiet brush of cascading raindrops through the leaves of the trees. I enjoy these sounds. They appease me.

This morning, the leaves are falling haphazardly. Most are green and still attached to the dozens of maples and cherries and locusts in the yard, but a significant smattering litters the surroundings. Our neighbors -– who may actually perceive leaves as litter -- were outside the other day, on the roof of their house, determinedly sweeping the leaves. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said “they do know that more will fall, right?” They do indeed, but a percentage of the local population has low tolerance for the drifts of color that will accumulate over the next month or so, and they make it a priority to remove the leaves as soon as possible. Sweeping the roof seems obsessive, to be sure, but perhaps no more so than Leigh’s behavior. She picks the leaves up one by one as they land on our deck. She only does this when they first began to fall, and I think it’s her way of stalling the season. It’s not that she doesn’t like autumn… it’s that she knows -- we all know, here in Oswego -- that no matter how beautiful fall is, it is a harbinger for winter. There is, perhaps, an understandable degree of denial in our approach to the descent of the leaves.

One neighbor has no patience for the sissy endeavors of hand-removal or sweeping. He utilizes a leaf blower, a primitive, tube-like contraption that exists for the sole purpose defined in its name: it blows leaves. It blows them from one place to another – from, say, the left side of the driveway to the right. It does this quickly, dramatically, and at a decibel level designed to incite ire in all who hear it. I must compare it unfavorably to the time-proven efficacy of the rake, which may require more physical labor, may produce unwanted blisters and shoulder soreness, but is blessedly quiet. I appreciate the simple design of the rake, as well as the rakish sound of its name. If I were to be reincarnated as a garden tool, I might choose the rake.

The longer it rains -– we’re only on Day 3, with five or six more forecast -– the more leaves come down. On the lawn, there’s a roughly even ratio, leaves to grass, 50-50. Soggy leaves have accumulated on the plates of the hostas, like wet dollar bills in a church collection basket. The deck looks like a shiny brown rug with an embossed leafy pattern, and the driveway is a long swath of black scarf embroidered with golden leaves. The other day I mistook a tiny snapping turtle for a leaf. I almost stepped on it, but part of it lifted in an unleaf-like way and I noticed it was a turtle head, black and blinking and the size of my smallest finger’s smallest joint. Tiny frogs, too, come out to enjoy the precipitation. They are all but camouflaged by the green and yellow leaves, splotchy with brown spots, plastered to the front steps. I have to be careful where I walk. Everything’s a little slippery, but worse than slipping would be to squash a frog or accidentally kick a snapper.

There was a year –- I was in my early 20’s, I think –- where I found it difficult to step on fallen leaves. I was feeling pretty fragile myself, and I didn’t so much anthropomorphosize the leaves as project myself into them. I didn’t imagine, in other words, the leaves as human or human-like… I saw them precisely as me. We were the same, shared a soul, and I didn’t want to feel stepped on. So I walked to school in a carefully zig-zagged pattern, a kind of stagger that made me appear drunk but which I executed while entirely sober. I lived on a wide, tree-lined street, but I didn’t knock leaves out of my way. I didn’t skip through piles of leaves collected near the curb or enjoy the crunch of leaves beneath my boots or behave, I suppose, in any sort of normal ambulatory way. But I loved those leaves, and I protected them, and I managed to negotiate the season without feeling overly damaged myself.

Today, perhaps in a similarly nutty way, the leaves look to me like broken birds. All across the yard, up and down the ridge, I see splayed, winged bodies. The rain has made the leaves’ colors ultra-vibrant, and their positioning seems open to the sky, as though they fell not from the trees but the heavens and are now in the posture of supplication or release. One maple leaf has landed in a thick pillow of ivy. It was a good life, it whispers. Its red arms shine and its body glistens against the deep lime-green leaves of the ivy. Thank you, it says. Thank you.

No, I don’t romanticize the rain.

I come by my dreaminess naturally; my mother claims to have loved taking us outside, as kids, and playing in puddles as it rained. I have no recollection of this activity, but she is so delighted when she recalls these occasions that I merely smile and nod. I can almost picture us out there, me in a pink polka dot top and striped shorts, my sisters and brothers similarly and goofily attired. We’re doing funny dances in the rain, we’re splashing each other. My mother looks so happy. The neighbors point from behind their curtains, and when my father gets home from work he hugs us all even though we’re soaked.

I do remember that later, as a teenager, I liked to run in the rain. I also liked to run in the dark, so after nightfall I’d grab a windbreaker and head out to the hills of our safe, suburban neighborhood. Jogging was the craze, but I never saw another soul running in a downpour. The streets would be slick and saturated, as black as crow’s wings, and I loved how the rain felt on my skin. There was something athletic and noble about braving the elements, alone, in the dark. It was good training, perhaps, for the writing life.

My favorite memory of rain occurred in the most unlikely place: the desert. I had arranged to meet my brother and his family for dinner. He had three small children at the time, boys of 7 and 5 and their younger sister. I hadn’t seen the kids in a while and they were only visiting Tucson for the day. I arrived at the restaurant in the midst of a serious thunder storm; it was the kind where lightning would scratch its way across the sky like a witch’s fingers, illuminating every needle on every cactus and causing the air to crackle. Two seconds later there’d be a crash so loud I’d levitate. I waited right inside the glass doors of the restaurant and finally saw my brother and his wife, headlights sweeping the parking lot, kids squirming in the back. They pulled up as close as they could, I stepped outside and waved nervously, the side door of the van slid open. My niece jumped out and ran as fast as she could, leaping into my arms. I spun her around and kissed her and hustled her inside the door just in time to see the 5-year old take a wary look at the sky, inhale, and charge toward me. I did the same thing – caught him, lifted him up laughing, got him safely inside. Now only my nephew Christopher was left standing in the doorway of the car, beaming. Maybe because he was older and we’d known each other longer, he’d been a little more lonely for me lately, and I for him. “Aunt Donna, here I come,” he yelled, and I braced myself. He was a tiny, tan kid wearing sneakers and shorts, and he darted through the rain as lightning skimmed the mountains and buzzed the valley and his body hit me square on exactly as the thunder cracked. Ka…boom! The impact rocked me on my heels but I held that boy to my heart and spun in the rain until we were soaked to the skin. There were no autumn leaves for hundreds of miles, but my eyes were filled with brilliant color.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Last Sunday

There’s one Sunday every year that breaks my heart. It’s the last Sunday of the summer, and here in Oswego it’s often a sunny day, the kind described as cool and crisp, the kind described as brilliant. The sky is blue, the clouds – if there are any clouds – are swift-moving. Because it’s already more fall than summer, I can smell wood smoke in the air. Although the leaves this year have barely begun to change color, there are drifts of dry browns and yellows and a few oranges already on the driveway and the deck, collecting up against the rock walls and lining the road. Fargo, my cat, who goes outside for approximately three minutes every morning, has learned that if she steps on one it’s okay, it won’t bite her. It’s this particular Sunday, every year, that fills me with emotions I can’t entirely identify, although there’s some percentage of yearning, of longing, some percentage of simple sadness, maybe some not-so-simple regret. There’s a whole pharmacy of unnamed feeling in me today, and it’s not because of summer or wood smoke or dry leaves. It’s because of the geese.

They’re leaving. Great lines of them – some in aerodynamic V-formation, some in straight lines, some in patterns that might best be described as disorganized, a few in couples or straggling solo – fly directly over our house on their way south. “South” is relative; some geese head for Florida or Texas, but some are content to rest in southern New York or Pennsylvania. Plenty over-winter here in Oswego which is, technically, south for the Canada goose.

There are days when hundreds, even thousands fly their routes, and I’ll hear them in ten or twenty minute intervals. On this, the last Sunday of summer, I’ll go outside every time they pass. I look up, I scan the sky. There are so many leaves still on the trees this year that it’s hard to spot the birds; their calls echo off the ridge we live on and I can’t tell which way to look. Eventually though they’re right overhead in a big open patch of sky. This morning the sun was rising when I heard the first group and the bodies of the geese were lit from below and shone. It was an orderly contingent, row after row of V’s, like a parade, and although there were probably only two hundred their calls echoed for several minutes, bouncing off the ridge and back, as though the sky were full, for miles, of honking birds. Closer to earth, the local birds were more active than usual. I don’t know if they’re agitated or inspired by the calls of the geese, or if they hear them at all. But the trees were being stitched, it seemed, by dozens of robins and cardinals and the occasional crow. Seeds from the black cherry tree fell like rain drops – I could see them being released, landing in the grass, bouncing off the garage roof – and on the driveway I found a composition that included two red feathers, hundreds of maple leaves, and small round white cherry stones that looked like punctuation.

Every summer, on this Sunday, I wonder what it is exactly that calls to me when those geese head south. I have felt it since girlhood, feel it only when I hear the geese in autumn or when I stand at the edge of the sea. Maybe it’s some combination of mortality and urgency. Maybe it’s just the recognition of beauty.

Maybe someday I will categorize every subtlety of longing and gratitude that I can isolate. But today, I listen to the geese. I go outside, I look up. And they are there.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September Sun

September 1st, and I’m sitting against a fencepost in the yard, soaking up some sun. I never do this – although I’ve bunched a jacket beneath me and propped a pillow at my back, I’m not particularly comfortable. Nor do I enjoy sunbathing – it’s too hot for me, usually, and unless I’m at the ocean I get bored almost instantly. But today it’s partly cloudy, so the heat isn’t an issue. There’s a sweet breeze – literally sweet; I can smell it – and the fact that it’s suddenly September adds a bittersweetness to the mix, an urgency that I heed. We won’t have many more days like this and, even if we do, classes have begun and my time is limited. And so I’ve assembled this makeshift chair and rolled up my t-shirt sleeves so I can feel the brush of a burn on my shoulders. My feet are bare and I’ve abandoned my sunglasses – these rays are meant to reach me.

Our neighborhood is a quiet one. No such thing as traffic out here – I think I’ve counted 2 or 3 cars at most in the last hour. Someone out of sight is making a small racket. Sounds like he’s hammering a metal post – a rhythmic, ringing series of clangs and clanks – but it’s far enough away that I don’t mind. A neighbor kid is clearing some messy growth from our backyard. Leigh hired him to machete an area that has become a tangle. It’s not really the backyard… more like the back of the backyard, a nondescript area that separates the tamed lawn from the untamed ridge. Beyond this intermediate zone is the heavily wooded slope I refer to as “the jungle.” It’s really just an extensive, thick stand of mature trees and underbrush. I find it a little funny that Leigh’s having the margin cleared – she wants to improve the view. To me, the view can be summarized in a word: green. But where I see green – shapes and sizes, versions and varieties, tones and shades of green, yes, but in the end, just a mishmashed canvas of green – Leigh sees fern and wildflower and shrub and poison ivy and maple saplings. I think she’s needlessly shaving off a layer of green in order to appreciate another layer of green, but it makes her happy to open up the yard to the wider world, and it makes the neighbor boy happy to have a pocketful of twenties, so why protest.

Thirty yards upridge from his efforts, more in the front yard than the back, I’m surrounded by buzzing and chirping and rustling. There’s an aural intelligence to these acres, I’m sure of it. The overlapping sounds of the wind, the chipmunks’ persistent, cranky cheeping and trilling, the yellowjackets and wasps that whizz by but rarely bother – it’s complex but accessible music. Visually, too, there’s composition everywhere. In the grain of wood where I sit, in the fringe of grass which is really ten kinds of grass and clover and weed and moss and another dozen things I can’t identify. I’m a little in love with the nail heads visible in the wood planking of the walkway. You’d call them round, and flat, but not a one truly is. Each has an irregular perimeter – rightly call them roughly round, or roundish…And they’re grooved, some of them, or appear embossed. It’s possible I’m the first person to closely examine these particular nail heads, and I feel as content as an explorer who’s stumbled upon some new species of tortoise. Some of these nail heads look like tortoise shells, actually…

The breeze picks up and brings me back to my senses; it’s almost like I can feel the wind through my skin. Along the driveway, a stretch of dried grass, fallen leaves, and gently curved twigs is disturbed by a low-flying current. It’s like a leafy chorus line – the whole strip rises up and tumbles and flutters – but it’s a chorus line with no stamina. As quickly as it kicked up, it dies down.

The post I’ve been leaning my head against is embroidered on either side with spider webs. A couple of butterflies flit by, and two hummingbirds parry, battling for rights to the feeder. A big tree groans, the neighbor continues to hammer. The boy’s still hacking at the underbrush – every so often he exclaims from the effort. The sun’s become hotter and the clouds have dissipated. I’m sweaty and happy and – despite what I know to be pervasive suffering, near and far, despite what I know to be fear and loneliness approaching those I love – for this hour in the September sun, I have been sated.