Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: Grief

Voluntas Vitae

The meaning of life? It lies
in the discovery of one’s own
bequest, a pearl in a shell,
an ability, a benefaction:

the willingness to refine it,
cultured, every shimmery layer
of opalescent nacre, held with
care, simply to be given away

with prudence to a worthy
steward, held indefinitely,
on permanent loan until passed
to another necklace, more precious

than Mikimoto. To be retained by
one, lacking recipient, is to grieve
like a lover with unrequited affections,
like a traveler without destination.

Finistère

The end of the earth is
what the French call their
Westernmost départment,
the tip of their beloved ground,

Where one can stand at
the edge of a rocky cliff
over rough seas, contemplating
a course to nowhere, the unknown,

With a stone in one’s pocket,
heavy, burdensome, worn smooth
with the distal phalanx of the
thumb in painful recollections,

And educational regret, or
the converse: a buoy of gratitude
and a truer understanding of
what we share, all of us.

My father described industriousness
as performing a task as if there was
no tomorrow, eagerly, frantically,
without restraint:

As one should perform every task,
as if encountered by the end of the earth,
touching foreheads with a loved one
over a deathbed, clutching hands.

If only such grace existed yesterday
And hindsight be wisdom, we could whisper
thanks and let many tomorrows be the product
of the hard-earned ground behind us.

Hiking the Shepaug on the Autumnal Equinox

The riverside trail was sprinkled
With the first leaves of Autumn,
Gold, like nature’s first green,
Shades of day that had sprung from dawn,
And tinged with shades of orange-red,
Like last summer’s coral lipstick.

The banks of the river
Eroded, exposing a tangle of
Otherwise hidden roots, the
Infrastructure of trees, naked
And longing for the earth that
The Shepaug had taken,
Turned into silted memory
And deposited into a delta, a mouth,
A place unknown.

Male field crickets hummed a
Lullaby, a subtle harmony,
A last-ditched, encore performance
That would be followed by the
Silence of snow, white and
Unable to refract light and
Bend it into any semblance of color.

For then, the weakened sun,
Distancing itself, warmed
The faces of walkers now
Free from the shade of leaves
That clung precariously to their
Steadfast branches. Treading
Upon an old railroad bed,
Groomed, stretching not to vanishing point,
But to an abyss, a tunnel, a passage,
Where it was almost impossible
To resist the urge to run.

Two Turtle Doves

About a month ago, I discovered that I left the storm window open in my second floor bathroom. In an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic life, I decided to strive for a spotless sill, capitalizing on minutae of life that lay under my power. Removing cobwebs and dead leaves from the space between two pieces of glass seemed an obtainable goal and satisfying task at the time, yet subsequently leaving that window open would have eventually defeated the purpose.

IMG_3256I likely wouldn’t have noticed the oversight until the next OCD attack, if it weren’t for the female mourning dove who had decided to build her flimsy nest there. One evening while attending to my toilette I heard the distinctive, soulful coo coming from the window, coupled with an aviary silhouette: an evening sloped bird shadow in the lower left pane.

The next morning she remained, periodically exposing her two small ivory-colored eggs, much to the delight of my children and me. We scoured the Sibley’s Guide To Birds, devoured the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, took daily photographs and videos of our new feathered friends. We were careful not to disturb her mothering, her dutiful and steadfast wait for her squabs to emerge from their shells as she warmed them with her bulbous breast.

They hatched about two weeks later, wet little chicks with tightly wrenched eyelids, vulnerable to all that lay beyond that sill. My teenaged son crouched in the adjacent bathtub waiting for over an hour the morning we discovered they had hatched to capture their image on film. I marveled at his stamina, his persistence, the ability of this tiny winged creature to tear him away from all electronic distractions. It’s as if Lovey Dovey, a name coined by my five year-old, had reminded us all of a world that existed beyond ourselves, outside of our comprehension or natural abilities.

The squabs matured, violently devoured dove’s milk from Lovey’s esophagus, which is simply regurgitated seeds she had pre-digested for their convenience. The growing squabs bulged from underneath their parent, as we learned that both male and female take on child-minding responsibilities. We wondered when they made the shift change, musing to ourselves that the changing of the guard was done in much more private circumstances than those of Buckingham Palace.

Mostly, however, her presence was reassuring in that there was an order to the world that was natural and that perhaps we were part of it. We instinctively lowered the shade when her uneasiness was clear, when the reactionary ruffle of feathers in a stream of artificial light spilled through the pane of glass that separated us. We understood that there was a wall, albeit a clear one, that offered an impressive view, but kept us definitively apart.

About a month after we discovered we were playing host to one of nature’s wonders, we left for a weekend away, only to return to two adolescent doves struggling their way up our back steps, and clumsily flying to a near-by branch. The nest was left, empty and filthy with guano, as we regretfully acknowledged that we missed the flying lessons and the thrill of observing the first stretch of fully-functioning wings. Of course we are not part of that world, and understood that our connection to this little family was fleeting by necessity, distant by nature and yet unusually intimate.

Yet it is impossible as emotional beings not to connect the experience to interpersonal, human ones. We had suffered loss that all human beings do, albeit in greater concentration in the recent past: we lost a parent, a grandparent, a marriage, the dream of a cohesive, nuclear family, an adored family dog. We had begun to prepare for my oldest child to leave our own nest, as he begins to think about colleges. It made us wonder if all such connections are as fleeting as an accidental intimacy we shared with a doting dove.

So it is with joy that we discovered that Lovey has returned to her nest this evening, perhaps seeking shelter from a rainy summer night, maybe to delightfully re-use the nest for another clutch of eggs. Let her serve as a reminder that the simple yet wondrous experience that she has shared with us, by some stroke of serendipity, will always be ours, as will every human connection we were lucky enough to make.

Meantime, I will leave the sill littered with sticks and droppings, ignoring – for now – what can be controlled.

Cosmic Connections

Doreen is a gregarious woman who walks her Rhodesian Ridgeback regularly around Edgemont Memorial Park. She is also exceedingly brave, a trait made apparent by her seemingly fearless ability to read poetry of her own pen to a crowded-with-parents Edgemont Montessori School library. She walked away from a marriage that didn’t quite fit properly, knowing that nothing but deep and meaningful love would be good enough for her. She has survived breast cancer.

She is also creatively talented, a seamstress and costume designer who has worked a variety of jobs, including for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, a post which offered a connection to another strong woman who she had never met, Judith Mortenson. Judith was a regular as an extra for various productions at The Met, a pastime that she enjoyed wholeheartedly.

Judith owned a beautiful brownstone on West 20th Street in Chelsea, along with her longtime friend Charles who spent part of his professional writing career penning speeches for Herbert Hoover. Ms Mortenson never married, never had children. Throughout her life she was able to regularly visit her Parisian pied-à-terre – that was gifted to her by a generous uncle – without familial impediment. A happy byproduct of her real estate holding was the cheeses she smuggled on her flights home from France to New York. She entertained her tenants with those cheeses, made complete by the only Christmas gifts she would accept from her housemates: whatever could be eaten or drunk.

She was practical, yes, but also well read, well spoken and never gushingly friendly. If she was kind to you, interested in you, you knew you deserved it somehow.

When Judith was well into her 70s, she decided to go under the knife to illustrate the intention of living the rest of her life well, with agility and lithe gait, by replacing a knee rendered useless by osteoarthritis. As routine as it is a hopeful surgery, it came as a shock to her housemates that she died under that knife, leaving her only intimate relation, a confused housekeeper, to handle the arrangements. It was an arduous and painful task for Judith’s longtime employee turned quasi-sister, so she simply ignored it.

Months later confused tenants – past and present – mourned the loss of a good French conversationalist, the tours of cheap New York and Parisian restaurants, the behind-the-scenes stories of the Met. Most of all they longed for the impossible proper good bye, ritualistic or otherwise. Yet the costume designers at the Met found an appropriate way to commemorate the life of a music loving, unassuming person of no particular ties: by retiring permanently her favorite strand of costume pearls. The necklace remains unassigned to anyone, taking indefinite residence in a decorative box with an engraved plate bearing Judith’s name and a mounted glossy photograph of her in full pearled regalia.

One of Judith’s former tenants-turned-suburbanite, who wept over her loss in Edgemont Park one morning, was comforted by the story of the box, found by Doreen one evening whilst rounding out some Diva’s cache of fake jewels. There was someone who was thoughtful enough to leave behind something tangible of Judith, a reminder of her metaphysical contribution and value to those that knew and loved her. It was appropriate that Doreen found the makeshift memorial, a similarly strong woman with a love of opera and art, and judging from her poetry, one with a clear understanding that love is an intangible commodity not found in a string of costume pearls, but in survivors’ still beating hearts.

“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”  -Viktor E. Frankl