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Help

In a dream, I run into a friend. She is tall, with serious eyes that fall into the furrow of her frown and then leap above the laughter of her cheeks, bouncing as on a trampoline as she thinks. She is dressed in dramatic plaids: a shirt and a matching cloak in blocks of vivid color that swirl around her. It has been over a year since we have seen each other. We embrace. Without preamble, I begin to sob in her arms: tears like the juice of a bruised fruit, surprised by touch.

I did not know, I think, that I missed this.

After breakfast, Santiago naps in a sunbeam on the bed. The light climbs in past white shutters and casts against the wall a dark green shadow of Mary, the mother of God. She is carved from wood, a foot tall, standing atop the night table. Over her pressed palms, her eyes are open to the world. In a few days, this pellucid hour that we have been calling eight o’ clock we will call nine, wrangling time into a new shape to suit our desire to be busy late into the day.

As Santiago snores, I read scripture and pray. I am anxious. I have changed the trajectory of my outer life, but my inner life lags behind on the old route. Absent a job, I fill my days with substitutes–scheduling an air duct cleaning, completing an insurance review, scrubbing hard water deposits from the faucets–in part to be prudent and in part to maintain my share of tedium. I feel guilty about my freedom, nervously reminding myself of the years that I worked two jobs, four jobs at a time; looking around the house at my second-hand furniture; knowing that I eschewed the costs of marriage and children and vacations, but unable to ignore the fact that my family could afford to help me buy an education, a car, a house. I write to legislators. I attend online lectures that are curiously depleting, so that I consider whether cameras might, as some have believed, truly steal souls. The world seems, not broken, but put together wrong: as if God had given us Tab B and we jammed it into Slot A. If I knew how to help, I might be like Mary: at peace with my eyes wide open. If I knew how to help, I might be like Santi: free, with the morning sun streaking my jowls.

Santiago and I explore little in winter. It can be hard to see where trails run in the snow or, if they are paved, to know whether they will be covered with ice or salt. But temperatures have been far above average–as if we lived four hundred miles south of here. We have seen swans floating on the river and heard cardinals singing in the treetops. Hawks fly low over our heads in the suburbs, and joggers are attired in shorts. Inside the house, shamrocks are unfolding in a pot, while on the streets, children ride their bicycles, drivers speed, and ambulances blare their sirens. Sidewalks are littered with shards of glass, plastic bags, chicken bones. Recklessness has returned.

And so, on a Friday morning, Santiago and I visit a park that we have never been to before. The sky is filled with dirty blue clouds that shift underneath a pale, yellow sun. The same hues wash over the land, where snow retreats from mud and withered grass beside a black and blue river. Santiago wears a duct tape boot. He has not made it through the season without a cracked paw pad. Every day, I dress the wound, and then we walk.

The needles under the pine trees at the edge of the park are soft beneath our feet. Santiago sniffs at the smells released by the warming earth, the signatures of those who sheltered here over the winter. We walk to a lighthouse that we have seen only from the other side of the river. There are red rose petals scattered along the trail in the thinning snow, and to be beside this structure–blue and white like a piece of china–is like being inside an enchanted mirror. As we wander, I stop to look at a wide, gray statue against the low, brooding sky and, later, the words, “I’m sorry” carved into a wooden bench. There are curving paths that balloon out and return to hug the river that underscores the city skyline. There is a torn kite in a tree, and a man on a bike taking photographs, and an array of stuffed animals near the beach where a boy drowned last fall. I consider the multitude of bears, the furry monkeys, the smiling frog, the pigtailed girl, the vase of popcorn, all of them lined up beside a boulder, the snow still hunched at their feet and the cold water at their backs. It touches me: this gesture of childlike grace, this tiny host of angels who will not forget the one who is gone, who will guide to safety those who remain behind, who will provide help for the sorrow that cannot be helped.

The clouds blow away. After walking the neighborhood that surrounds the park, Santiago and I cross the street and rest on a rocky beach. An elderly couple passing slowly waves at us, smiling under their hats and behind their masks. I sit on a driftwood log and order take-out: a biscuit stuffed with egg, tomato, and herbs. I’ll share it with Santi. His face is turned toward the sun. I don’t feel anxious.

It has been a hard season. Lent arrived. I stopped eating chocolate and my friends began attending funerals. There were three last month, and another is coming. I have family members who are in chronic pain. A friend texts to say that stress is making her hair fall out. We are making ourselves capable of freedom, of turning our feet to new paths. It hurts.

Driving home with the warm biscuit in a paper bag, I take an unfamiliar turn and am startled to see three lanes of cars coming toward me. The street that runs two ways further west is, apparently, one-way here. I pull over to the curb while a white-haired woman honks at me repeatedly. My confusion is like that of geese in the middle of a road, to whom the same frenzied bullying is applied, the noise triggering panic but providing no direction. The woman continues to honk long after I am out of traffic and have ceased moving, and she pulls up beside me, shaking her finger and shouting something behind her window. I look at her and shake my head in puzzlement.

“How are you helping?” I ask quietly.

Like Santiago, I am healing from a late winter wound. On a day when the sun was brilliant, creating an imperceptible swish of water atop old ice, I slipped at an intersection. It seemed as if the world went black and then as if my limbs were splayed in more than four directions. But Santiago stayed where I told him to, despite my having lost hold of his leash. And my overalls did not tear and soaked up the blood without complaint. We continued walking. There were candy canes still hung in a boulevard tree, and a mail carrier stopped to pat Santi’s head. I found a good book in a Little Free Library. And in the middle of a shady block, I watched a small, gray-haired woman crawling up the front steps of a house, muttering sadly.

“Do you need help?”

She was trying to put a mis-delivered envelope into the mail slot beside the front door. The steps were covered with ice and had no railing. I took the envelope from her. Santiago jumped around in a bid to play with the woman, so that I spoke sharply to him as I did my own crawling, one hand clutching the envelope, the other tugging at his leash, the blood on my knee not yet fully clotted. I was a little taller than the old woman. My arm reached the slot, even in a crouch.

We expect it to be easy to move from winter to spring, but it isn’t. It’s a hard season.

On Sunday, Santiago and I walk at a nature preserve. The sun shines and the ice slicks that remain along the path are melting. The air smells faintly of both rot and nascent greening. A muddy new trail has been cut higher up the bank where the swamp is perpetually flooded. We take it and are surprised, at last, to find ourselves at a busy county road. The trail does not loop.

We turn around. When we are near the flooded pass once more, where a “TRAIL CLOSED” sign is half sunk in grainy ice, a woman approaches from behind on the path. She is running and calling a name over and over again. She is not wearing walking shoes or a hat or a jacket.

“Who have you lost?” I ask.

A seven-year-old boy.

We begin looking, too, Santiago and I, peering hard into the stands of trees. The woman runs ahead of us, calling, and I hear something, across the swamp: a sliding note that gets swallowed by the wind. The woman keeps running and calling, and again I hear the sing-song reply.

“Do you hear that?” I call to her.

She stops. I point backwards, across the frozen water. Santiago sniffs at felled trees beside the path. The woman calls and the sweet soprano whisper comes again, drifting among the trees and over the swamp. The woman turns and runs behind us once more.

“Oh, thank God!” she cries.

Freedom is not a reckless wandering. It requires something: not innocence or maturity, not bravery or wisdom, but the grace of God.

The days continue clear and warm. In the mornings, I watch the sun rise. In the evenings, I talk with friends. Santiago and I walk in the neighborhood, past cats sunning themselves on front stoops next to faded Christmas decorations. People I love get vaccinated. The robins arrive. And Santiago has his first roll in the grass, outside city hall. A man stops to admire his joy.

When most of the snow has melted from the yard, I gather the pods that have fallen from the Kentucky coffee trees in winter’s wind. I put them on the compost pile and use a shovel to turn them in among the citrus rinds and egg shells and onion butts that have lain atop the ice and fed the occasional rabbit and raccoon. I prune a white cedar branch outside the living room window that broke in a heavy snow. I unwrap the boxwood beside the backyard deck. Its leaves are glossy and full. And among the soggy oak and maple leaves that cover the gardens, there are peeks of violets and pachysandra and White Nancy.

That evening, the sky goes gray and clears its throat. Santiago comes to me in the kitchen, where I am washing dishes at the sink. He does not cry, but he clings to me. I hang the dish rag and invite him to the couch. I light candles, and we lie beneath a blanket as hail lands like fear and anger and sorrow against the roof and siding. Santi is balled up beneath my crooked knees. His breathing is slow and even. I reach my hand beneath the blanket and caress his ears, rub my palm against the coarse fur of his neck where the skin bunches. I cannot expect him to be with me more than another five years. When he returns to the freedom of dust, I want to remember what he felt like. That will be a hard season.

To watch the snow melt, and to see Santiago’s first grass bath of the year, visit the gallery.

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Freedom

These are the dark days of summer. For two weeks, the temperature is six or seven degrees above average, with nights that simmer. I move through the house like I am praying the hours, flipping blinds and draping shutters, following the migration of the sun from east to west, dimming the radiance in order to slow the stifling build-up of heat.

It is a liturgy allowed by the pandemic. When I work at the office, I am encased in a cubicle that admits no interaction with the unbridled world. I cannot see blue sky. I cannot see gathering clouds. I cannot see snow that has accumulated in the parking lot, nor tire tracks that waver nervously through the colorless depth as flakes continue to fall blurrily across the scene, like scratches on an old photograph. I can see only my coworker at her desk, and a dark hallway with a waxed floor that shines under the hard light, and photographs of Santiago, in the tallgrass and at the shore, pinned to my wall.

Now that the old oak is gone, the metal and glass doors from which Santi and I exit for our morning walk are white hot by the time we return. A bare-skinned hand or hip is liable to receive a welt if it lingers too long. In the wee, wooded yard behind the house, mushrooms grow on the back door mat in the stubborn humidity. I take sponge baths, unable to stand the steam of a shower or a soaking in the tub. I sleep on top of the blankets of the bed, next to Santiago, who stretches out in torpor as if he cannot cool himself, who laps lavishly from the old cat bowl that I keep for him under the night stand. I wake to fireworks, to sirens, to the resentful bawl of speeding cars without mufflers, to the fights that people have in the early morning hours on the street: the sounds of summer darkness.

My sister and her family arrive Independence Day weekend. We have not seen each other since Christmas. We wear masks, and we meet outside the house, on the deck in the back yard. Santiago joins us. His antics are a physical expression of the giddiness that we, too, feel in our gathering. He dashes across the length of the deck and then stops so suddenly that his claws scrape the paint on the wooden planks. He holds his body in a low crouch, looking up at us. He feints to the right, tossing his snout. He feints to the left, casting his hips. And then he lifts off, raising his body, racing to the edge of the deck, and leaping over the stairs and into the garden. He makes a gymnastic turn in the grass and runs back up the stairs, then sits, the tip of his tongue hanging out of a smiling mouth. Superdog, I call him. He pants for a moment, then starts the routine again. At long last, playmates have arrived.

I am babysitting a chrysalis for the children next door. They have had four caterpillars in a small, mesh terrarium, and three have transformed and taken flight. The children have chosen a spot on the deck to place the little bag, and they have picked and eaten raspberries from my bushes, and they have gone away for the weekend. As I chat with my sister, our chins sweating beneath our masks, my niece says that there is no chrysalis in the terrarium. There is a Monarch, clinging to where a pouch like pewter had hung the night before. When I unzip the bag, the butterfly does not move. His wings are as brilliant as a sunset over a rocky coast, his legs as fine and strong as a dancer’s. I take a picture and send it to the kids. The next time I look, the butterfly is gone.

I do not feel like I am in a lockdown. I am not suffering under quarantine. I have a home and a job and a car and a yard. I am watching lives beyond my own being niggled down to the size that I have preferred mine to be. I used to sit alone in a car in the mornings, watching anxiously for the driver who would cut me off when I needed to cross three lanes to reach my exit. Now, Santiago and I regularly run into the neighbor across the alley: she chatters cheerfully to the daughter she pushes before her in a stroller, and we stop to greet one another as the sun climbs the sky. Each day, the dog and I listen for the thunk at the door that will mean that the mail carrier has come, with his skinny legs and merry eyes, letters and magazines. One afternoon, the neighbor across the street texts that she has left a box of freshly picked basil and thyme and Queen Anne’s lace on my front stoop.

I am not alone. I am cloistered. I live in a community, and my work is to see God in these faces: in the neighbors whose cigarette smoke drifts into my windows, in the cats who leave bird bones in the yard, in the spiders who rebuild their webs, day after day, beside my front door. My work is to hold loosely to property and to expectations. My work is to tip my head and shake it until a freight of distractions drops loose from my ear and is left to rot back into soil so that I can hear once more. There is poverty to hear, and injustice, and birdsong, and joy.

The trees along the parkway glint with sunlight as my sister’s family and I drive to get gelato. The heat presses down upon us, unmoved by wind. We spoon and lick our treats at a picnic table in the shade, admiring in the driveway of a house across the way a school bus that has been decoupaged with groovy colors. My brother-in-law is walking with a cane, the result of a bad fall. We are mindful of risk in a burdensome new way, and the soberness of that risk is what makes us so elated by our freedom. I stand six feet away from these people whom I love and smile into the camera as I take a picture of them, behind me, all of us framed together.

When we have finished our treats, we visit a WWI memorial. My sister and I descend from an Englishman who made it home from the Western Front. We photograph the flag pole and rest on the cool marble beneath it with our water bottles. My brother-in-law is proud of his slow walking as we wander over to Abraham Lincoln, who stands hidden nearby among pines and magnolias, the icon of another war. Before they leave town, I take the family to a bakery that sells doughnuts like sweet, chewy clouds. Its windows are masked with plywood. A couple of blocks away, an auto repair shop has been gutted by fire. It is the same throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes the wood says, “Black Owned.” Sometimes it says, “Justice for George.” Sometimes there is nothing but a frightened peep of a scrawl, hope amid risk: “We’re open.”

I am driving home from a park with Santiago one hot morning when I see that a man is in the yard with the six-foot-tall Virgin of Guadalupe paintings. The paintings change like the weather, but they are always vibrant: teal and yellow and red, and glimmering with the brilliance of the sun and the moon. They are peaceful: with downcast eyes and clasped hands and shoulders that bear the world, and featuring a cherub to boost the train of the holy maiden’s garments. It is the image that the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, left inside the cloak of an Aztec peasant: Juan Diego, the first indigenous saint. I turn the car around. I talk with the artist, whose name is Harold. There is a painting of the Archangel Michael on the lawn, but Harold says that his call is to paint the Virgin of Guadalupe. He offers me a drawing. I pay him twenty dollars, and I tack the drawing on the wall in the study near where I write.

“Let it be unto me according to thy word.” That is what Mary said to the angel who told her that she was pregnant, accepting without dissent what was delivered into her life. She was free.

Santiago holds loosely to property. I buy him new clothes: an orange collar, a buffalo plaid harness, a long, black leather leash. I can tell from the way that he prances when I fit him that he doesn’t just think that he is going outside; he thinks that he looks handsome. He does: clean and natty. It takes him one day to get the harness pocked with stickseed, which has transfigured now in mid-summer from tiny white blossoms into bright, green burrs at the edge of every wood that we traverse.

But Santiago is a handmaiden of the Lord. He accepts the burrs on his new clothes as the work of the universe at its planting and as the price of a life well lived. He is open and hopeful, attuned to what the world is presenting, even as it changes, upending our expectations. We are in a familiar forest early one Saturday morning when I imagine from the vigor of his sniffing and his trotting that we are tracking a deer. I am puzzled when we reach the top of a hill and come upon a camper among the birch trees, with white geese padding about beside it. A large area has been cordoned by a rope fence, and I follow Santi, cursing its ruination of the landscape.

And then I see the goats: a dozen of them at first, away from the fence and browsing in the dark wood with its gentle shafts of dawning sun. Santiago is pulling, eager to get closer. We follow the curving path and encounter at least a dozen more goats, in every shade and pattern, doing the things that goats are famous for–standing on logs, butting heads–so that the moment is astonishing, like something staged for the cinema. Santi barks at last. He cannot contain his excitement and jams his head and front paws through the fence, so that I have to disentangle him as he shouts and stick a flopping post firmly back into the ground. The goats are silent, but they have run toward the rope, not away from it. They are watching us with small, black eyes at the tops of their long faces, their horns as expressive as arched eyebrows, curious about what the day has brought them.

Later, we find the signage: the goats are clearing the underbrush. They are chewing down to the root what is harmful, making space for healthy, new life.

On a weekday morning, the heat begins, at last, to pass. Raindrops fall so delicately upon the surface of the local lake that the sound of them is almost imperceptible underneath the whoosh of distant traffic. Santiago and I walk beside houses whose chimneys are covered in creeping vines; where U.S. flags flap in front yards and coneflowers in worn purple and dusty red and faded gold decorate the gardens; where church steeples lean against clouds the color of a chrysalis about to release a Monarch. Santi grazes on wet grass. The rain dampens my hat, my sleeves. It falls on Santi’s back and parts the fur on his snout so that the spots on his skin show through. It dirties our feet. We do not expect otherwise.

More scenes from summer, including Santi with the goats, in the gallery.