The Daily Muse
It has been strange letting go of the vigilance required by the drought. Over the course of the past ten or twelve days we have received nearly sixteen inches of rain with more predicted to come our way. Everything is exploding with new growth- all that is required of me is to pull a few weeds and patrol for diseases. Yesterday, I was looking back over last year's journal and I was reminded that on September 5th, we set a record high temperature, 112 degrees. It is interesting that now, I feel an unexpected uselessness. Last year, I could rage against the heat, offering my garden the gift of water, but now I must stand back, a bit apprehensive- fearful of both more rain and the sun which could fuel new storms with its heat.
It is quite early and I am up alone with my cup of coffee. A few moments ago, I thought I would indulge myself with an old friend, I reached for a collection of Wendell Berry's poems. I opened the book at random, and there by my thumb was a poem called "A Wet Time." I laughed when I saw the title. A wet time indeed.
- Wendell Berry
When are we ever ready for this sort of parting? Our worlds turned upside down. Our clever hands reduced to dumb fists in the face of the uncontrollable forces that surround us.
As I write this morning, I am mindful of another anniversary- my brother's parting. Almost one year ago I received a phone call that turned my world upside down. My brother, Jeff, called me out of the blue one evening last September to ask for help. He had just visited his doctor and was exhibiting disturbing symptoms, cancer was suspected. Jeff needed someone to ferry him to and from the expected round of biopsies and surgical procedures. He was too proud to ask for the help of his immediate friends and my parents were gone, enjoying a long planned trip. So, Jeff turned to me, as he had on a few occasions in the past . I have never been more thankful for anything in my life- thankful for the chance to be a big brother once again, thankful too, for the invitation to put my all but useless hand on his shoulder.
Jeff's last month was a nightmare for our entire family. I can mark each of those thirty odd days and tell you where I was and what we were doing- while at the same time it all feels like a dreadful blur. Now, one year later, our family is bracing itself for a flood of memories- the anniversaries of phone calls, crises, and emergency rooms. There were hopeful days amid the dark- and, at the end, Jeff knew he had the gift of our love and we were certain of his. Still, the river washed away the stakes we had planted by its shore and the earth fell away beneath us.
In a short while I will take my first inspection tour of the garden, being sure to pull a weed or two. But, as I do so, the heaviness of the sky will remind me that at any moment life can "go free of plans," erasing those that we have so carefully drawn in the dirt.
Another line of showers passed through the garden earlier this morning leaving us with a trace of rain and a hint of autumn. The air is noticably cooler than it has been - could this be a sign of an early fall? I hope so.
Autumn has always been my favorite season. In the Hudson River Valley, where I grew up, fall was marked by crisp weather and brilliant foliage. I can remember several occasions where I privately celebrated the first time I had to put a sweater on or shut a window. I liked the sound of rakes and the smell of the dense smoke of burning leaves. It was a time when even the dark voices of the crows seemed reassuringly right.
Every year, about this time, I genuinely hunger for those four precise seasons that we experienced in the north. Here in Texas, summer lingers like an unwelcomed guest and can reappear even in the middle of winter. A few years ago, we had a 100 degree day in February! During the worst of the August drought, I found myself searching the web for cities to the north and east as well as the northwest- looking for a new place to set down roots. Was this just a case of a passing desperation? No, this longing is a part of who I am. But, I am also, by nature, a very rooted person, a most un-American trait.
It is hard for many of us to talk seriously about attachment to place when we shift around the continent like nomads, leaving wide swaths of generic ugliness in our wake. It is actually counter-cultural these days to stay put and cultivate the ground under our feet (not to mention the communities in which we live.) For over two decades I have resisted this inclination towards flight. Still, the refrain of the song "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" is echoing around inside, persisting like the smell of burning leaves on a sweater.
Once again, life and the world "go free of plans." In the middle of this terrible day I tore myself from the horror unfolding on the television screen and walked out into a garden that, at first, seemed distant, like a familiar shore slowly drifting from view. I wandered about, contemplating the events of the day- it started with Victor's pager going off with another of its "breaking news alerts" begging us to tune in the latest horror. At first, I resisted its prompting, not wanting to hear the breathless recounting of this new outrage. Then, Victor called from his car, he was on his way to work, and told me that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. When I turned the television on, they were replaying the video of the plane with its familiar silhouette, strangely dark and ominous, sailing over the Hudson and exploding into the tower. Then came the rush of false reports and additional calamities... the towers imploding politely onto themselves burying thousands of fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends.
As I made my way through the garden, I slowly roused myself from the shock and let the sun warm my skin. The birds were active, the fish were circling contentedly, and the flowers were all enjoying this respite from the rain.
Life does go on, free of our plans. And, life will go on, free of their plans too.
Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies within us while we live.
Earlier today, I took a walk through the cemetery a few blocks from my house to visit my brother's grave. Off to one side, there is an enormous rubble field with rocks and clay that have been dug from the earth. Many people go there to gather stones for home landscaping projects, as I have on several occasions in the past. As I walked by, I slowed down to guage the quality of the stones. I had a specific project in mind, I was looking for a tall, symetrical piece of limestone that I could use as a 'standing stone' in my garden. I wanted to create a memorial, something to remind me of the events of the past two days.
I believe in the power of a garden to transform and heal, to remind us of both the everyday and the eternal. Paraphrasing Churchill's famous quote about architecture, we create these places and they, in turn, re-create us. New York, indeed, our entire nation, has lost far more than two giant office buildings. The attack has disoriented us, altering our physical and psychic landscapes. I hope that when the rubble is cleared, the towers are replaced with something that lifts our hearts as well as our eyes.
A three foot tall limestone pillar now stands amid the crushed granite of our zen garden. It will serve as a personal reminder of both the despicable horror and selfless humanity that we have witnessed. It is a small landmark, but even the smallest gestures, as we have seen, can give us hope.
One year ago yesterday, my brother called to ask for my help. I talked with my family a few days ago about how we should observe the coming anniversary of my brother's death and my father told me that for him, "everyday is an anniversary." September 18, 2001, also marked the passage of another anniversary, one week had passed since the day when all of our lives changed.
I have been thinking about memory a good deal lately- about how the events of the past week serve as a challenge to our culture's ability to sustain memory and resolve. The impatient nature of our culture reduces our capacity for memory, encouraging instead a packaged nostalgia, something that can be sold. Years from now, will we remember our feelings at this moment, and what has been done? And more importantly, when we respond, as we must, will we remember who we are? I fear that the absense of memory will lead to lack of sustained action, or worse still, actions that sink us to the terrorist's level. In either case, all will be lost.
Memory has a role to play in our gardens as well. It often seems to me that my own garden is rooted in memories of a childhood surrounded by nature's beauty and sheltered by a loving family.
Years ago, I was attending a board retreat for the Seton Cove, and the facilitator asked us to think about the welcoming physical atmosphere of the Cove. He suggested that we think about anything that had caught our eye that morning as we came in and to meditate on it. I remembered that before I passed through the door I spent a moment or two with a beautiful yellow iris that I had transplanted there from my own garden. So, I chose to meditate on that. The color of the iris seems to be the key to what followed....
Initially, all I did was fidget in my chair, but slowly my thoughts started to drift. After a few moments I found myself transported back to the bedroom I shared with my brother when we were growing up.
It was a spring morning, and I was just rousing myself from sleep. As I lay amid the tangle of my sheets and covers I heard a bird that I recognized as a "wild canary" singing outside of our window. (It was probably a warbler or goldfinch.) My brother, sister and I felt a special reverence for these bright yellow birds. They seemed to appear magically, visiting the meadow grasses and flowers in the field behind our home for a brief time every spring, before moving on.
I jumped from bed to watch them. The sun warmed my arms as I rested them on the window sill and a slight breeze lifted the curtains letting the birdsong drift in. A dogwood tree, planted by my father, was blooming just a few feet away, and the birds were hard at work harvesting seeds. As I sat in the Seton Cove meeting room, I remembered the distinctive smell of the wooden sill and remembered too that I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen. My mom was preparing breakfast and the scent of coffee and bacon mingled with the reassuring sound of their voices. Sitting there in my chair, now lost in memory, I recalled the profound sense of thankfulness and awe I felt- I remembered that somehow, in my child-like way, I knew how very fortunate I was to be there, framed by that window, and by the love and sacrifice that made the peace of that moment possible. I remembered thinking, "Surely, this is what God wants for us all."
We forget how many children around the globe will never know such a morning. Until a few days ago, most of us took for granted the bounty of our tables, our safety, our very good fortune.
The roots of our gardens grow deep in the labors and loves of those who came before us. Let us cherish their memory, holding fast to our hopes that our children's children will someday peek outside of windows framed by love.
A child's world is fresh and
new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for
most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and
awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
- Rachel Carson
I have been busy with the last pruning of the year, lots of weeding, and planting winter veggies. After enlightenment, the Zen master chopped wood and carried water. What else is there for us to do but carry on?
The past few days have been delightfully cool, as autumnal as Austin gets in September. What a welcome change. When the front came through it seemed to blow away the lingering heaviness that had settled into our gardens. If only the wind could scour our hearts.
A few days ago we hung a Tibetan prayer flag in our garden. Its colorful squares are printed in an unintelligible script complete with little cross legged Buddhas. I like the idea of hanging your prayers out for the wind to catch and deliver. We have seen much of that on the streets of New York- xeroxed photographs and phone numbers taped to lampposts and walls. Eventually, the wind will deliver them too.
We can let our prayers go, setting them adrift on the wind. But like invisible kites they will pull at us, keeping us mindful.
This has indeed been the month of memory.
Continue to October 2001
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