WHEN THE SHARKS ARE CIRCLING, JUMP.

I live in the desert but often think of the ocean; if not the ocean then I think of lakes, waterfalls, rivers, ponds, monsoons. I rejoice at the appearance of rain and the occasional snowfall. I know what I am missing – salt air, the sound of sea birds and waves and beach combing but not enough to go back. Going back now is in the memory of ocean days.

My husband and I were on vacation, those few hoarded days of summer that are gone nearly as soon as they begin. We are on Paines Creek Beach on the west side of Cape Cod, facing the Bay. We have heard or read that at low tide there is a sandbar out there, covered in giant clam shells and that you just have to wade out a few hundred yards and pick them up. Well, who doesn’t need giant clam shells? They make cute soap holders, receptacles for beach glass and smaller shells and decorative additions to the garden. In addition, we were curious about how big these clam shells really were.

The tide was out and we began wading to the sandbar we could see in the distance. The water was soupy-warm from the heat of the day and its shallow depth. As we pulled ourselves along the water depth varied from mid-calf to waist deep, depending on the troughs and berms of the ocean floor. It really didn’t matter how shallow or deep it was because soon we hit the floating sargassum of seaweed, slathering our legs, ribboning around us and surely hiding creatures who wanted to glide against our skin, take a bite and dart between our legs. Were there baby sharks with teething issues or even bigger sharks cruising under the greenImage scum? Did we actually feel something touch our leg in passing? We thought about what our feet might step on – broken glass, rusted metal, sharp dead things.

I have always tried to persuade myself to not be afraid, to almost force the issue by walking into dark rooms, staying alone in old houses, picking up the phone in the same old houses and hearing whispers but not giving in to fear, whoever they were. We all have experienced that sensation of hair rising on our necks if we see a movement out of the corner of our eye when we are supposedly alone or hear a strange knocking sound at night. Our most basic defense mechanisms are our senses which tell us something is not right even when our minds aren’t paying attention. I did not like the feel of the seaweed and even more so not being able to see what might be underneath but I wanted those giant clam shells. Fear would not win.

My husband was only a few yards away from me. He is tall with enviably long legs. He began doing a most embarrassing but delightful thing to watch. He would lift one long leg at a time and leap from one opening in the seaweed to another clear spot where he would momentarily be free of its slimy swirl around his legs. He looked like a giant crane taking off in flight. He looked like Ichabod Crane at the seashore avoiding all those heads floating around on the bottom.

We made it to the sandbar, scooping up the giant clam shells only to drop them for even bigger ones just a few steps away. We then headed back, our hands now loaded with shells and my husband resumed his crane dance through the seaweed. I think his rationale for this behavior was based on simple physics: the more time he spent in the air, the less contact he would have with the green blob.

I could draw all kinds of allegorical conclusions here such as “it’s the journey that counts”, “keep your eyes on the prize” or “confront your fears to reach your goals” but I won’t sink to those depths. The only lesson to be learned here is how the crane dance is a good survival tactic when confronted with dangerous seaweed and that no matter how much you embarrass yourself and your wife, do what you have to do.

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Everything Looks Different Now

My brother, George, dealt with poor eyesight since he was a young child and wore glasses for most of his life. Occasionally he would have to hand off those glasses to a friendly bystander when he was forced to fight the neighborhood bullies. August 1963 all of usThere were quite a few when you were a skinny kid with thick glasses. My brother was in his forties when he was diagnosed with cataracts. He had probably had them for a long time. Surgery to remove these blurry veils allowed him to see things as he had never experienced them. He said he could see the world in radiant color and the individual leaves on trees astounded him. This was a man who loved nature and being outdoors; gaining the ability to see it clearly must have been like having old bandages removed from his eyes.

The loss of George weighs heavily on me. His scarred soul and damaged heart could exult at fresh snow, a rainbow trout spotted in a stream or the flight of a hawk. When I see a great canyon, a herd of elk, aspens in the fall or vast horizons of mountains, I think “George would have loved this.” This poem is for my brother who shared what he loved with me.

GEORGE, 1952-2009

When I look back at the six of us
in the summer of 1963
we are still together then,
framed in a faded photo of imperfect colors.
The hardpan dirt of our backyard
with its ragged strands of grass
is our marked territory
among the old brick houses
whose tall chimney stacks reach for air.
On this barren square of earth
a chapter of our suffering is caught.
Brothers and sisters are told to smile
and you smile, George, innocent, obedient
in this alley of junked cars, sagging fences
and chicken wire enclosures for hunting dogs.
Your shoulders are broadening
as you start your climb to over six feet.
Maybe you lost sight or sense of that height
when you unfolded under the iron sink
in the back room off the kitchen.
Above the shaved patch of your head
black threads hold the skin together.
Your thick glasses are not there –
the ones you would be teased about
for most of your tattered life.
Those will be broken too,
becoming ashes thrown to the wind
like you when you couldn’t smile.

 

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Look Me In The Eye And Tell Me I Am Not Beautiful

BobCat (2)BobcatWe get up every day knowing that the sun will rise and if not shine brightly then at least lighten the sky behind the clouds, fog or snow and mark the passage of the hours. The moon is full or not full, we do not remember if the stars were out last night because we didn’t look. We assume we will live out our day doing the routine things that have to be done and plan ahead for doing something not routine. We drive, shop, eat, report to the office, do laundry and one day blends into another so that we wonder where time has gone. We don’t have time to look up at the sky to see it change or look down at the ground to notice that a bit of green is showing in the clumps of dry grass or tracks mark the passing of an animal. We don’t notice those few seconds of absolute silence when there is an absence of noisemakers – planes, trucks, people, wood chippers, leaf blowers, store music, televisions blaring in Wal-Mart. If there is noise in those end-of-the-world moments, it is the songs of birds which fit into the universe like they really belong.

Once in a while something happens which forces us to look, to “be in the moment” with no chance of distraction by other things. So it happened this week when this wild creature appeared at my doors and windows, cold and hungry and making it clear he wanted in. I followed him from room to room from inside and with just the glass between us, got to look into the face of a beautiful bobcat. Again I realized, as with so many of the other wild things that cross my porch, graze in the field and slither along the walls, that I live in their world and they live in mine.

His low growls and padding from door to window to door, wanting to come in and looking so lean, tested my willpower to not throw him the chicken in the refrigerator. Feeding wild animals around here is not helping them; they become dependent and when you are not there, they become lost. So no, I do not feed the wild things but they feed me.

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Thank You And Goodbye, Gordon Nash

Mountains and Rivers

It has been raining in the Sonoran desert for the last few days. The dust is washed away and the seeds of spring flowers are receiving the good soaking that will bring them into bloom come March and April. Mt. Lemmon, seen from our windows, has a layer of snow but with the return of the sun it will sheet down the rock faces and chasms, glinting like distant waterfalls and rivers. We love to see snowpack on the mountains in the West, water stored for the water-starved here in the valleys.

In my last blog, “Swimming in Stew”, I wrote about my near drowning in a pond and being rescued by a young friend. The story is continued today in a different place, a few years later.

It is early spring, probably March, in Hamilton, Ontario. I am with a new boyfriend. His name is Gordon Nash and we are both innocents in the dating game especially since we met at an evangelical church and we are young, fifteen and sixteen years old. He is a poor, working class teenager like me, being raised by his father after his mother died a few years earlier. Gordon is not my dream boyfriend – he wears glasses, decent but utilitarian clothes and is not yet handsome in his gangly frame and boyish face. He is friendly and sociable though and he owns a little motorbike. Gordon is quite happy to take me for rides since he has a girl behind him, holding on tight. This is as close as we ever come. We never kissed although I wish we had since I at least owed him that.

Being Canadians, we were not deterred by snow or cold and had adapted so well to it that outings in winter were routine and enjoyed. On this day we are hiking part of the Hamilton escarpment which we call “the mountain”. Its equivalent would be a high, long mesa in the southwest. The escarpment is part of a huge limestone and shale formation running from New York state to Wisconsin and its most famous feature is Niagara Falls but there are many smaller falls that pour over its edge. Gordon and I are with another young couple at Websters Falls, one of the most popular in the area. I remember a fairly good snowpack as we followed a path below the falls, full of newly melted snow and cascading into the river below, moving with a fast and powerful current over the rocks.

Perhaps I wanted to distance myself from Gordon; perhaps I just wanted a closer look at the spectacular water running beside us. I started to walk to the edge of the ravine but my boots would not grip the wet snow and I started to slide down the embankment towards the river. I managed to stop a few feet away, half lying down in the snow and feeling the fear of clinging to a precipice from which I could not move unless it was over the edge. Gordon, gallant Gordon, seeing my dire circumstances, held onto a sapling and slid toward me with his hand extended and I was able to grasp it and be pulled to safety.

His was one of those purely selfless acts that people do for another in danger, in this case a teenage boy saving his girlfriend from a freezing and certain death in fast-moving water. I have searched my memory for any selfless act of bravery on my part and found none. As a former nurse I performed CPR on many a dying heart but I was never in any personal danger and it was not a choice but an expected part of my job.

I broke up with Gordon a short while later since my feelings could not melt for him. I don’t remember if I thanked him and I don’t know what happened to him but wherever you are, Gordon Nash, goodbye and thank you from the rivers of my heart.

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Return To The Turtle

I think writers and artists have a special affinity for storing imagery, sounds, smells and atmosphere for their future use. Sometimes a notebook comes in handy but you won’t see a flash mob of poets and artists around you, pulling out a notebook and pen to record impressions at every opportunity; it’s just not convenient. So we hoard in our minds those moments that have happened to us and they become a resource bank. I make it sound cold and analytical but it’s not, except to the extent that we are not always “present in the moment” when we are around people – we are thinking of them and the circumstances as a resource too.

In my last blog I mentioned snapping turtles as being one of the reasons I don’t go into ponds anymore. Since I live in the Sonoran Desert I have practically guaranteed that won’t happen. We do have horned toads here though, as well as Gila monsters, lizards and desert tortoises. Animals that still look prehistoric fascinate me. They have evolved to a certain point and then stop because there seems to be no need for further improvement. They are a connection to a history when we didn’t exist, a living relic of the age of dinosaurs.

About 25 years ago I stopped by the side of the road to watch a snapping turtle cross to the woods and pond on the other side. I got quite close, crouching down beside it to take it all in – the enormous claws, heavy, dun-colored shell, the algae on its back and its musky odor. This was not one of those polished-looking painted turtles sunning itself with a group on a log but a turtle so primitive and armored it looked like a tank. They are not to be interfered with by amateurs since their neck can stretch back to their hind feet to snap with powerful jaws. It is still a vulnerable creature because it does not have a retracting neck but if all goes well it can live for many decades, possibly for a hundred years.

At that time I always carried a camera with me since I was studying photography as part of my college art curriculum. This turtle took its place in my mental filing system with the  help of the camera but without a photograph I can still recall every sense of the moment. I later did a watercolor of the turtle and many years later – 25 years later – I took the experience to the next step by writing a poem about it which refers to the mortality of the turtle and of me.

The Turtle

On an old road roughly paved,
corridored with dark woods
hiding black pools filled with the ghosts
of all the leaves that have ever fallen,
I stopped for the great turtle
hauling his heaviness again
to those sunken sediment waters.
He would lay low until spring
unless spring did not come again
to warm his bones, his heart, his blood
enough to lift his armor out.
Slathered with algae where flies gathered
he smelled of a womb of mud.
I could not help with that inch by inch crawl –
he was a snapper with bone-crushing jaws.
That and the age of his shell
gave him the right to his own pace;
his life already longer
than the one I had yet to face.

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Swimming in Stew

This is a monoprint I created as part of my Water Series.

The pond is dark – that black-green that hides all things until they surface. The water is cool and still on a hot summer day with just a few dimples of waves lapping at the shore. Red-winged blackbirds fly in and out of the rushes. Full of life, ponds provide a home for beaver, muskrat, turtles, fish and frogs. There is a banquet of insect and crayfish groceries for them right on up the chain to the predatory birds wading in the shallows or ducks upending themselves to graze on underwater plants. And yet the water itself, with its microscopic creatures and active decay and renewal seems to be a living entity on its own. I know all this, so I don’t like to be in ponds.

You have to actually step into a pond before you get to swim above the mud and gunk and rotten spinach feeling that squeezes between your toes before you reach the depth that floats you above it all. If you stopped to think about the snapping turtle who can break a broom handle in two with its jaws or the fish with possibly sharp teeth who wants to taste-test your feet, you wouldn’t go in at all. There is the horror of feeling something brush against your legs, circling where you can’t see. It is a well-known fact that leeches live in some ponds. There is also no consideration for others by those same creatures mentioned above to not use the pond as a toilet. Let’s not even get into the slime of algae floating like green clouds or rooted to sunken things.

In the early 60’s, I gladly accepted an invitation to go camping with a Danish family who lived across the alley from us. It may have been a pity invitation because they saw my chaotic home life but I said yes because I was infatuated with their son, Eric the Handsome, although it was his older sister who invited me. I was 13 and still had not learned to swim, even after taking lessons from a Canadian Olympic swimmer.

The sister (I don’t remember her name) and I headed to the pond for a swim on a beautiful summer day in southern Ontario. She wore her athletic-looking swimsuit, I wore a heavy cotton hand-me-down from a neighbor. We were almost in the middle of the pond, my Danish friend trying to instruct me. I started paddling away from her like a loose fishing float bobbing in a current. When my toes could no longer touch that silty, soft bottom I knew I was in trouble. I was a typical drowning person – I could not speak or yell, I could not turn to her nor move in any direction or raise a hand to give her a signal that I was drowning. All my strength was being used to keep my head above the surface, gulping in what oxygen I could along with plenty of pond water. Somehow this young girl recognized my distress, swam the 20 yards or so that separated us and pulled me back to a safe place – and I can’t remember her name. She is just Eric the Handsome’s sister. I wish I could thank her after almost 50 years of remembering this and tell her that I finally learned to swim. I did suffer the consequences of swallowing the pond water however, enduring an alimentary canal upheaval from one end to the other. But now I can say I know what drowning feels like.

Ponds, especially those with white waterlilies snaking above the surface so beautiful in their purity, are primordial stews slow-cooking under the summer sun. The pads of lilies cover the decay like a green blanket and the darkness of the water is a tea of rotting leaves, rushes and dead creatures. Ponds are the petri dish and septic system of nature, recycling all that falls to their murky depths. I know all that – so I no longer swim in ponds.

 

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P.S. When You Come Home…. A few more thoughts on letters.

The letters between Grampa Skean and me stopped so many years ago but I am still pondering letters, looking at the language, the way they end and the emotion and meanings still evident in those marks on paper.

In the 1970’s, I had written to my grandfather who lived in a small house in Port Burwell, Ontario, the only one he ever rented with electricity and running water. By this time I was living in Massachusetts with my American husband and my new son. I had welcomed the opportunity to restart life in a new country but was conflicted about leaving the past. My Canadian roots were my identity but neither the good nor the bad connections could be forgotten. I felt I needed to know more about where everyone had come from to converge on the tip of Lake Ontario where I was born. I asked Grampa to tell me about my ancestors. He willingly obliged, in only three letters, by providing the names and dates and circumstances of the origins of his and Gramma’s families. I think it gave him a goal and purpose to recall and pass on what he knew. He was nearing the end of his life and I may have been the only one to ask him for something that only he could provide. How a frail man in his 80’s with the most rudimentary education could remember all those people and dates of birth and death is still a question not answered. I suspect there may have been a family Bible to help him but I do not know.

His ancestry was mainly Dutch and Irish but the speech patterns of rural Appalachia can be detected in some of his writing and certainly in my memory of his speech. Even though he lived all his life in Ontario there was an antiquity in his expressions that comes from earlier generations of German, Irish and Dutch ancestors. For example, in writing of his Irish grandfather he states “he took up land from the Crown” and “he sent for his girlfriend down in Pensavaney to come to Canada to be his bride.” If someone came to visit, they were “down from” somewhere, as in “down from the West”. He states “there was nine children in my mother and father’s union”, conveying the idea that “union” was not just a marriage of love but a binding agreement, a contract between them.

His own union with Gramma Ethel would have been this type of binding that endured in a time when divorce was shameful, if not impractical. With so many children, he needed a wife and she needed a husband. I often wonder what caused their rift – they never talked to each other, not a word in all the years I knew them. Was it the sweet and gentle giant of a son who may not have been Skean’s, who looked to be a member of the Six Nations? Their relationship was never spoken of and his letters are scant in their mention of Ethel. He also did not list his own children – ten of them – names, birth dates or date of death. Only the ancestors seemed relevant to him.

By the time of his third and last letter, Grampa Skean had returned to the church, most likely for some contact with his rural community. Some of his sons had died, others were dying, his daughters were sporadic in their contact and Ethel was long dead. His writing hand became more rigid and hatch-like, sentences were shorter and self-pity finally made its appearance. He writes “but old Indian Chief don’t cry over it, your old Grampa got lots of friends” and he speaks of the Christmas and birthday cards he received from the church people. “Indian Chief” was the name he made up to entertain me when I was very little. He had many arrowheads from hoeing tobacco fields and I had no reason to doubt him.

He lists all the people who promised him letters but did not write, and recounted the month and year he last heard from those who did write. He is lonely and nearly alone. Being far away and a self-involved twenty-something, I did not write again before his death a few years later and I regret this very much.

In re-reading his letters, one sentence stands out, repeated in some form at the end of each letter, a trail of words into a loss of hope on his part: “When you come up again I will show you where they are all sleeping.”

Letters are one of the most personal ways of telling our stories. Somewhere there is someone who may have a letter from you. It may be all that is left of your story when you are sleeping.

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