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Dependence

On a warm, Sunday morning, a gray sedan stops in the middle of a suburban street. A man exits the driver’s side, takes a few steps, then lobs a folded newspaper onto the walk in front of a two-story house with a garden etched into a hillock above the curb. As the man gets back behind the steering wheel, Santiago heads for the paper as if he has been invited to a game of fetch.

Santi is alert to men in cars. He has attempted to board city buses, mail delivery trucks, contractor vans. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t wag his tail at a guy getting into or out of a pick-up. He once leapt into the passenger seat beside a stranger eating take-out with the car door open; the man laughed and gave him chicken and waffles. In Mississippi, Santiago was picked up twice as a stray. He was reclaimed twice. Finally, he was deposited at a local shelter. He was skinny. He had bloodshot eyes and pressure sores and a yet-to-be-discovered case of heartworm disease. He is a dog who has been dependent upon the good will of the universe. He has believed in it fiercely–and courted it–and more than once it has revealed itself in the form of a man in a van. On the day that I brought Santi home from the animal shelter here in Minnesota, I had to cajole him out of the trunk of my car. When I popped the lid to deposit a bag of dog food, he jumped inside. He sat there with his eyes gleaming, waiting for the adventure to begin.

It is Independence Day, and we are wandering together in our neighborhood. It is already hot. We leave the newspaper behind. A strong south wind makes the leaves overhead flutter and sough, and where red, white, and blue flags have been hoisted, they are wrapped around poles. At a tennis court, a woman with silver hair and a man with a gently protruding belly chase a ball with lassitude as they chat. Parents and toddlers stand under streams of water at a splash pad near picnic tables scattered with firecracker remnants. Santiago and I take our places in the summer tableau, sitting for a spell on a street corner, our faces to the wind. Several blocks away, a church carillon plays, “Morning Has Broken.”

Never is there a day without glory.

We head home through a field of dormant grass and bindweed. The latter is also known as wild morning glory and is considered noxious. It requires other plants for stability, vining and generating great carpets of its own kind. There is little for it to clutch here, only stunted stalks of purple clover. Still, it blooms with pretty, white flowers in this parkland that over-mowing and a scalding sun have stripped of most other vegetation.

What tiny, blooming thing will we miss when the plants that are left on Earth no longer have the strength to pull rain down from the sky?

Beside our house, Joe-Pye weed is high and readying its flowers. Sprawling red sedum has pink blossoms. Every day now, I pick raspberries. In the absence of rain, these plants depend on me to slake their thirst. I have potted plants, too: hibiscus, ficus, and lemon trees and a purple shamrock, all of whom have wintered in the house for years, such that a priest I know referred to them plainly and truthfully as my friends. They are glossy and blooming, while this year’s tomato plant has rooted itself into the soil beneath its pot and dangles three, tiny beads of green fruit. The pumpkin plants salvaged from the neighbors’ compost have great, gold blossoms, and I begin to wonder whether they may, in fact, be zucchinis. The universe will provide. I worry about the water table, which, like the plants, depends on me. As one bleats for generosity, the other pleads for restraint. And yet, the ways in which the soil is distinct from the water, the water from the clouds, the clouds from me are very slight. We are amalgamations of dust and spirit. I extend care. I don’t know of a better approach.

A week ago, it rained. On Saturday, there were drops that whispered faintly like children at a slumber party, so gossamer that it took them hours to dampen the sidewalks. For all their shyness, they were a mercy: a thing prayed for and delivered. The next morning, gray sky persisted. Santiago and I walked around a lake. Near the shore, stalks of water dock had gone orange from dehydration, their seeds like rusty nail heads. Where the lake had receded, a rocky beach grinned. A fish jumped, breaking the quiet as he slapped back through the surface of the water.

The rain that came then was unpredicted. It started ten minutes after Santiago and I left home and lasted for thirty minutes, soaking my shirt and pouring off the brim of my cap. The air became cool, and we were the only people outside. The shower shook blossoms from catalpa trees and ruffled the feathers of two crows who sat on a telephone wire, a church steeple piercing the sky behind them. At the edge of a prairie restoration, I photographed black-eyed Susans and foxtail barley grass and young oak trees sprung up amid the Canada rye. When I turned around, Santiago was eating goldenrod. He loves goldenrod. The clouds exhausted themselves and drifted away. Wet linden trees filled our nostrils with the scent of their wrung-out sprays, and rabbits appeared on lawns. A skateboarder wiggled down the street like a garter snake. From the lampposts and eaves, drops of gratitude lingered, falling from my fingertips and from Santiago’s slick fur with a kind of effervescent music.

We’ve always liked walking in the rain.

The farm from which I purchased a CSA share has had a downpour, but my neighbor’s CSA farm has not. I pass on a head of buttercrunch lettuce. I learn how to make kale chips, and Santi trots into the kitchen when they come out of the oven, begging. I learn how to make kohlrabi fritters, and after I’ve plated them with plain yogurt and freshly cut basil, he sits beside my chair with long strings of drool hanging from his jaws. I share these things, but I keep the sugar snap peas–plump and crunchy in a bowl of ramen–for myself. Santiago got an extra walk the afternoon that we picked them up, and a bite of the peach-pecan-maple scones left on the porch with a cheerful note.

This plentitude of food and the pleasure that it brings co-exists with ostrich ferns beside the front stoop that have turned a sickly green from the heat and the drought. It co-exists with a customer at the grocery store who tells me–after I have sanitized my hands and ladled mashed potatoes from a buffet into a paper container–that I ought to have worn plastic gloves. I wonder if she knows that when the rain comes, it is speckled with plastic. My father is hospitalized for three days. His phone is not charged, and there is a time when my family is keenly aware of our vulnerabilities: the ways in which we depend upon technology and strangers, our bodies and each other. One morning, Santiago and I walk past a small, stone angel placed beneath a lush and towering white pine over which the sun is rising red from Canadian wildfires. That is what this summer is like: lavish and kind and terrifying.

I have learned that there is a third way when I am troubled, that when confronted with things that I wish were otherwise, I do not have to choose between resignation or resistance, that there is always, in every circumstance, much that is right, that I can, instead, choose joy. And so I sit under the shade of a sour cherry tree on a hot night and watch Santiago play with a puppy named Juniper. Her big paws and the soft, gray mask across her face make her look like his own, little lass. On a walk, I marvel at a spider web catching the light and a picnic table placed in the blue water of the lake. At a farmers’ market, I smile as a couple with ropy, old necks and dark sunglasses takes a selfie sharing a root beer float. When a doe lifts her head beside a dog park that is empty but for Santi and me, it is a gift; though he cannot clear the fence, Santiago chases her without tether and is happy. I buy ice cream for the neighborhood kids who have stayed out of my gardens–even when losing their balls amid the plants–and I visit their lemonade stand, buying a cup each for me and for Santi. In the mornings, we squash mulberries on the city sidewalks, and, in the evenings, we lie on our deck, the day’s warmth coming into our bones, watching tiger swallowtails flit through the leaves high above our faces.

Never is there a day without grace.

A chilling rain falls, and Santiago and I sleep with the windows open. At dawn, we drive to a park we haven’t visited for a while. Santi snoozes in the car, his chin on the arm rest, but he opens his eyes and purrs when I exit the freeway. At the park, in the cool, morning air, he runs. The sky is gray, and, for the first time in many weeks, I am wearing a jacket. Herons and egrets and cormorants are roosting in the swamp among dead trees and prickly wands of rattlesnake master. Green frogs call, their voices like the pluck of strings. On a path through the woods, a bicycle lies on its side, and nearby two people are gathering wild raspberries. The first acorns have fallen beneath the oaks. Over a hillside covered with wildflowers, a transmission tower climbs up and disappears into a fog.

We walk to the swimming beach. Foam is scattered across the sand, and buoys bob in the water. A mist rises from the waves. On the dock, someone has left a fishing cap. A woman watching the wind blow the mist toward the shore turns to us.

“It’s so beautiful,” she says.

When my father is home again, I sit at the piano and sing a hymn of thanks. A friend emails to say that her teenaged son needs heart surgery. I wish it would be otherwise. But, of course, we are all dependent upon others for the well-being of our hearts. I go to a nursery and buy some coneflowers and coreopsis, pots of little bluestem and hen and chicks, a burning bush. I spend a morning digging out the ferns who will never again be contented in a landscape stripped of the oak trees that they depended upon for shade. Things change. But this is what joy engenders: the love needed to minister in the face of change.

Sunset comes now before nine p.m. Santiago and I learn to sleep through the fireworks that shoot off every night, despite the holiday having passed. On a Saturday morning, we go to the Mississippi River. Smoke from over the border gives the sky a dirty tint and triggers my asthma. The river is so shallow that a man and a child are fishing in the middle of its half-mile expanse. They have crossed from shore to sandbar to rock bed to stand in the sun-sparkle and cast a line. Every beach is a moonscape of previously submerged stones and emergent vegetation, the latter more vivid growing in the mud than the trees higher up the banks, which are a faded olive and dun. I pick up a mollusk shell that is nearly as large as my cupped hands. At the water’s edge, a bald eagle is surrounded by crows cawing with excitement, and when we walk to the prairie, swallows lift and loop over our heads like they are writing cursive messages in the sky. Santi catches sight of a white squirrel and stalks her, suspicious that she is a cat, and a paddling of ducks advances slowly before a boat being launched into the water.

Never is there a day without beauty.

To see Santiago and Juniper, and other joys of a hot, dry summer, 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.