To dream, to write, perchance to connect

Connection

“Connection” by Dylan O’Donnell

Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.

He is my family’s  endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.

We don’t tell him otherwise.

Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.

“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.

That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).

Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?

He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).

Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?

Do dogs really dream like humans do?

The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”

I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article,  I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.

Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .

You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:

The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between  things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.

Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science

Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.

My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming. 

But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.

As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of  their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.

But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:

When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens. 

-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers

To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .

To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .

Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.

But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope.  Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without  . . . to connect.

I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.

“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”

At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.

He sighs.

The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.

Still born

Lost in France WWI

WWI digital collage by jinterwasCC BY

“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915

By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .

The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.

He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.  

Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:

a place made vacant

in our home can

never more be filled.

A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing. 

She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.

“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”

Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”

The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”

The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.

He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.

They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond. 

She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . . 

Then the darkness swallows everything.

*******

Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.

There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.

How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!

His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”

Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.

His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

*******

“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”

“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .

She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”

“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My  great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.

Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”

She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.

“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.

“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”

“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”

Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.

“Just one day late,” she smiles.

She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.

I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.

*******

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Your stories live on.

Love always from your and your Papa’s namesake. 

Angel hair

Angel hair

Vintage 1960s Bradford Carillon Spire Tree Topper on eBay

We are decorating the tree.

It’s not a real tree. My mother opens the big cardboard box, pulls out the pole, sets it up. Then she takes the branch sections out. Spots of paint on the twisted metal branch ends match the spots of paint on the pole. There’s an orange row, a blue row, a red row, a yellow row, and then the top section, all in one piece.

The tree is together, whole. 

The string of lights has big colored bulbs. Red, green, yellow, blue. Most of the ornaments are Styrofoam balls covered in silky, hairlike strands. Red, white, blue, gold. They shimmer in the light. I am allowed to hang some of these on the tree.

The most beautiful thing of all is the tree topper.

It is not a star. It is a tall, pointed, gold thing. Three sparkling silver bells hang over a rounded part where gold bars make a swirly cage over a soft, bright, pinkish-coral ball of something.

“Can I hold it?” I ask. 

My mother places the topper in my hands. I can see the room, I can see us, reflected in miniature on the golden surface. The silver bells are frosty with glitter. I am entranced by the pinkish stuff. “What is this?” I ask, pointing.

Angel hair,” says Mama. “Don’t touch it—it will cut you.” 

She takes the strange, beautiful thing from my hands, then, standing on a chair, works it down over the tree top where it sits like a crown. 

I am thinking many thoughts. How can angel hair cut me? My own hair is so soft. It could never cut anything. Are angels so strong, so powerful, that their hair is somehow sharp? Why do angels have hair this color, like the sky at sunset? In every picture I’ve ever seen, their hair is blonde or white. Maybe even silver. I cannot picture hair this color on an angel, or what kind of face such an angel would have. I shiver. Angels are gentle and good, right? Don’t they protect children? A song is on the radio, something about falling on your knees, hearing angel voices . . . I am not scared, exactly. I am still. I am full of wondering. How did the angel lose the hair that is in our tree topper?

Then I think of another song.

Rock-a-bye baby

In the tree top

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

When the bough breaks

The cradle will fall

And down will come baby

Cradle and all.

—Why would a cradle be in a tree top? Who would put a baby in a place that was so dangerous? Why wasn’t the baby protected?

So many whys. So many things to wonder about. 

My mother shows me how to toss little handfuls of icicles, long silver strings, on the edges of the branches so they’ll catch and hang there until the entire tree shines with make-believe ice and magic.

All the while, I keep looking up at the angel hair. 

Wondering.

* * * * * * *

If I could speak to my little self, if my voice from my vantage point now could reach across the vista of decades, I would say: There will be many angels in your life, with skin of many colors, real  hair of many colors, not spun glass, They will not cut you or harm you. They are the people who bring healing when others bring harm. They will bring comfort and joy that outweigh pain and loss. They will pull the scattered pieces together when things fall apart, so you will feel whole. Things will not always look  as expected; people who should protect make perilous choices, but there will always be better angels who step in when needed most. Always. 

Be strong. Believe. Be the better angel, whenever, wherever you can.

Merry Christmas, child that I was.

And Christmas grace to you, my reader in the here and now, to the child you were and to all of your angels.

Remember. Let the wonder live anew.

Letters

img_2699

It’s a neither-here-nor-there day in June, the middle of the year, not exactly warm but not really cool, either. The blinding noon sun makes for dark shade under the trees while an intermittent breeze stirs the new leaves, dappling the sidewalks with moving shadows. People come and go from assorted shops, crossing the cobblestone street. Their voices are muted, distant. I concentrate on guiding my husband’s steps over the uneven pavement. Still adjusting to having just one eye, he struggles with depth perception and will stumble, so he grabs hold of my arm. The restaurant where we’re headed for lunch is just ahead and I am fantasizing about the she-crab soup when I happen to glance to my left, and that’s when I notice something unusual.

There, nestled close to a house entrance, in the flickering light and shadows, is an old letter box.

I’ve walked here many times and haven’t seen it before.

It appears to be wrought iron, standing on a pedestal. Ornate. I can’t tell how old it is; probably a replica, fittingly weathered.

It captivates me completely.

I forget my soup, my husband; his hand slips away. I wonder what stories might surround this vintage mailbox.

I can almost see a woman in long skirts, shawl pulled tight in one hand, a poke bonnet enshrouding her face, a creamy parchment envelope clutched in her other hand. A letter to her husband, off in battle:

The garden is thriving. I’m putting up quarts of snap beans and pickles, and soon I’ll be about the fig and pear preserves. The cow is sickly, however. I don’t think she’s long to be with us. I pray that your cough is better than when you last wrote. I think of you every passing hour, marking them with determined delight, as each one that passes brings your return that much closer. Baby and I miss you desperately. You will not believe how she’s grown in your absence, or how like you she is, so full of confidence. It shines in her eyes, which are your eyes, always reminding me . . . .

Or maybe there’s a barefoot girl in a long white gown, loose hair rippling over her shoulders, sneaking from upstairs to leave a letter just before daylight, darting back inside before the roosters crow and before a young man on a horse clip-clops down the street. He dismounts, goes to the box, finds what he’s waiting for—a time and a place. She’ll be there. He folds the letter, tucks it inside his shirt pocket, against his pounding heart, just as he remembers he shouldn’t be seen here. In one swift motion, he’s astride the horse and down the cobblestone street, fog closing in after him.

Maybe there’s a portly, mustachioed man in an overcoat, golden watch chain glittering against his vest, retrieving a notification that all his investments are gone. He staggers back against the house, slides down, collapses in a heap on the sidewalk.

Or a black-haired boy in breeches mailing a scrawled envelope: Santa Claus, North Pole. He isn’t asking for anything for himself: Dear Santa, This year can you please bring my Christmas present early? It isn’t really for me. It’s for my Mama and Papa. My baby brother only lived three days and they’re so sad. I didn’t even get to play with him or teach him how to play ball or take him for a ride in the goat-cart. If you could, please, Santa, could you bring a new baby brother? Or even a sister? Or can you ask God to send one soon, so Mama will not cry anymore?

Or . . . .

“Are you coming or not? Why are you just standing there?” My husband has gone several paces without me and has had to come back.

“Oh!” I start, my reveries vanishing. “I, um, just wanted to take a picture of this old mailbox.” Out with my phone. Center, snap. Done.

“Okay. Let’s go. I’m starving,” I say.

But it’s not she-crab soup I’m now hungry for, or food at all. I am craving the character of people who knew how to persevere, who could not have imagined sending and receiving messages on devices within seconds and growing impatient even with that. People who didn’t have the entire world at their fingertips but who read the world in a different way, with a wisdom born of living close to nature. People who knew how to read one another, who knew what mattered most, who had to wait for it, who kept on living in the meantime lives that were far richer with much less.

For everything that is gained, I muse, how much is lost.

For a time, then, I leave the mailbox behind me, but it remains in my mind, an image even clearer than the one on my phone. It pulls at me like an ancient lodestone draws iron. Every time I pass by now I will have to look and make sure it’s still there. I need for it to be. I want to step into the silence, into the moving shadows, to discover what messages await me there, to marvel over whence they come.

slice-of-life_individual

This too shall pass

This Too Shall Pass

This too shall pass – Notting Hill. Florencia LewisCC BY

Once upon a time, long ago, I drove to work in tears. I couldn’t see a way out of a certain situation. Worry had consumed my thoughts for days. Like a moth desperately fluttering at a light but never landing, so it circled round and round my brain. Like the Grinch, I’d puzzled until my puzzler was sore, arriving at no logical resolution. The weight just grew heavier and heavier.

A sudden movement on my right startled me – a white pickup truck zipping by. That’s not the passing lane. I scowled at it, then nearly ran off the road in astonishment.

The bed of the truck had a tall, wooden rack on top, and on the slats was a white sign meticulously painted with black, Old English letters:

This Too Shall Pass.

I blinked, looked again. Yes, it was real. And it was literally passing me.

I looked around, half afraid I’d see these same words on barns and road signs like something out of The Twilight Zone, in which case I’d have to consider getting help with my state of mind.

But no – This Too Shall Pass was only on that white sign, on that white pickup, passing in the wrong lane to my right.

It was there for a few seconds, then on it went, out of sight.

As did the weight I carried. It melted away in the wake of that truck. I couldn’t see the future, but I understood this momentary trouble was just that, momentary. It would pass.

And so it did.

Whatever it was.

I said it was long ago.

I cannot even remember what I was so worried about.

At all.

But that truck is vivid in my memory. I can see those Old English letters, still.

I like to think that the driver painted them because he had a great sense of humor about his edgy driving. It’s too good, really . . . .

Except that I never saw the driver, nor have I seen that truck since. I hoped that I would – I watched for it on the roads for a long time after, but it’s the kind of thing that happens only once.

Once being enough to get the message.

This Too Shall Pass.

It always does.

 

The inner reaches


It’s the stuff of dreams, a trip around the world. From the frenetic cities and marketplaces throbbing with conversations in myriad languages to snow-capped mountains where there need be no words at all. From mysterious man-made structures and their lost meanings to the astonishing buildings of recent eras – mankind has always been a prolific builder of things. From ice palaces to tropical islands,  from the platypus to the father emperor penguin incubating the egg he fertilized – the wonders are endless.

How, then, is there more to see in a walk on the beach?

The wonders are truly no less. The ocean speaks not with words but with overtones of infinity, encompassing all of time. All that was, all that will be.  Continuity. It has always been here. The sun rises and sets as it has always done, painting the sky and waves with its fire. On a clear night at the beach, the moon and stars are silver sentinels of  vast outer reaches beyond the human grasp. Order; everything in its place. Reliability. The seafarers of old navigated by the stars.

Salt air, salt water – the beach is a place of healing. Body, heart, mind and spirit.

It is hard to stay worried at the beach – I have tried. Whatever is knotted in the heart or tangled in mind is slowly unraveled here. Peace, often so elusive, abounds with the splashing of waves on the shore; the breeze caresses, comforts, clears away. Restores.

The outer reaches of the world, the little pieces of the universe that we can see, impact us from the outside in. Wonder, awe, inspiration, curiosity.

The beach invites us to work from the inside out. To think. To contemplate ourselves, our place, our paths. Our existence. To know the inner reaches of our own minds, our own hearts.

The inner reaches are as vast as the outer.

Maybe more so.

​​​

​ 

Mystical morning

Ocracoke surprise

The island dawn is one of nebulous grayness, the sun an oblique white disc shrouded in veils of clouds. Painted from a palette of pearl, silver, and slate, the sand, the sea, the sky are starkly monochromatic, like an old black-and-white-movie. The temperature is indeterminate, neither hot nor cold. The morning is not uninviting nor inviting; it simply is.

As I make my way past softly rolling dunes of long grass shivering and undulating in the wind, I think only of the ocean, the opportunity to savor its splendor in relative isolation, away from commercialism. I expect to see a die-hard beachcomber or two; surely this a shell-collector’s paradise.

I do not expect the tree.

There it is, up ahead in the sand, directly in front of the path where dunes give way to the shore, with the shimmering, empty Atlantic for a backdrop.

How curious. I’ve not seen a tree smack in the middle of a beach before.

Are there others? I scan the shoreline, as far as I can see, on the left and the right.

No.

This is the only tree.

Did it grow here, somehow? I investigate. I suspect not, as the sand is built up around the tree’s base, although I can’t discern human handprints. Or footprints. I don’t even know what kind of tree this is, although I saw numerous others like it lying in the Pamlico Sound on the Hatteras side of the ferry ride to Ocracoke. I should have asked the crew what kind of trees these are and why they lie so far out in the water. 

Driftwood, then. 

It stands here on the vacant beach with its thin, snaky branches twisting skyward. Shells dangle from some of the vine-like tips, reminiscent of castanets on fingers. Or earrings.

I am enchanted. I’ve a sense of standing in no-man’s land, except that someone has clearly been here. Maybe someones, plural. Mystery people were inspired to plant this bit of driftwood and to decorate it with what was near at hand. 

The tree is dead. Shells, for all their intricate beauty, are but skeletons. I marvel at the human heart, its great desire for creativity and play. At the ability of the inner artist to see that random pieces of things no longer living, broken things, can come together in such an unexpected way. Whimsy in the wind. The beach tree stands as a mystical reminder that all is not lost, that all has value, that there’s beauty beyond the brokenness if we are willing to rearrange the pieces. The extraordinary lies not beyond the ordinary, but within it. Not beyond us, but within us, within our very grasp, if we just reach.

The ocean sparkles despite the obscured sun, like the twinkling of an eye when someone’s just about to smile.

Ocracoke morning

Note: The title is a deliberate play on that of a previous post about my son’s trip to Iceland – both attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mythical morn.

slice-of-life_individual

The last stop

 

Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.

 

Mythical morn

Iceland beach

Sea stacks (Reynisdrangar) and black sand beach,  Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland

The breaking of the wave cannot explain the whole sea. – Vladimir Nabokov

My older son toured Iceland this week, capturing his own abiding images of the exotic landscape.

We struggled to find adequate words for encapsulating the stunning scenery.

Desolate. Windswept. Wistful. These drifted in and out of my thoughts when viewing the photos, although they were a shade off, a tad too dark, didn’t have the exact right feel, weren’t sufficient. Uncaptured words, like elusive, shadowy birds, circled round my mind, never quite touching down.

It’s like being on another planet, my son texted.

Ethereal, I texted back, almost happy with that word, as it’s one I love and it almost fit.

It’s mythical. 

My son nailed it.

He was, after all, the one there taking it all in.

Land of legend and lore, glaciers and volcanoes, sharp contrasts and starkness, sparse, picturesque villages, moody skies and morning mists, Iceland is mythical. Not in the sense of Avalon and Atlantis, for one can actually stand at the volcano’s edge or scoop up handfuls of the black sand at the beach, really tiny pebbles of basalt. The whipping wind, the rocky coast, the crashing waves – the Vikings would recognize these still.

It looks like something out of Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia, said my son.

Experiencing Iceland vicariously, I did what I always do when I wonder about things – I looked them up (until this moment, I hadn’t thought that looking things up might count as a hobby; I am saying it’s mine, the next time I’m asked). There in the Internet’s vast sea of words, the facts have as magnetic a pull as the legends.

On the southern tip of Iceland, where my son stood on the black sand looking out at the craggy basalt sea stacks, the ocean is unimpeded all the way to Antarctica – there is no land mass in between. Hence the Atlantic rollers – long, powerful waves – can attack this shore with ferocity. I envision the sea drawing itself back as far as it wants, like a pitcher winding up for a fastball. Treacherous, even deadly (local legend features sea trolls and shipwrecks), there’s yet something lyrical, spiritual, about the wild freedom of the ocean at this point on the globe.

The Earth is mostly water; we are mostly water. 71% of Earth is covered by water; there’s 73% water in the human brain and heart. The ocean’s inspirational pull on us may be that simple – like recognizing like. We see the beauty and the power of the sea and something stirs deep within us – humans have waxed poetic about the ocean from time immemorial.

The thing that draws me most about this particular spot, the fascinating black beach at the village of Vik on the southernmost tip of Iceland, is knowing the ocean is unhindered here, from the shore at the uppermost part of the world to the lowest. The vast freedom, the power. The creative force. It draws me as a writer, as a teacher, as a human. That we are capable of great destruction is an understatement – but that’s not where I am going. From our entry into the world to our exit, there’s not a time we aren’t hindered by obstacles, both physical or metaphysical, taking their tolls on our bodies, minds, hearts, spirits. It’s astonishing how we are inspired to carry on, unfathomable how the smallest of things can be the source of willing ourselves onward – we flow over, around, through what would hold us back, finding peace despite what looms, ever how great, in our paths. As with the ocean, humankind has waxed pretty eloquently, deeply, about trouble, trials and pain. It’s a shared experience; none of us is unmarked. The difference is how we make our way, individually.

To be truly unleashed and still live seems an impossibility, so I ponder the power of unhindered inspiration – the indomitable force that would be. What heights, what depths, what creativity. Ultimate constructive power, unlimited possibility.

If such energy were harnessable . . . well, that’s the stuff superheroes and sagas are made of.

I tap into it as much as I am able, and let it flow on – one grateful conduit of ideas, images, and meaning, in my little part of the boundless, surging sea.

Iceland waterfall

Skógafoss, a waterfall in southern Iceland at the former coastline.

Note: Prior to writing this post, I had been toying with a piece about an enchanting encounter on a beach much closer to home. The titles of these posts are deliberate plays on one another, attempts at capturing the essence of place: Mystical morning.

Twilight’s gleaming

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling – Twilight Zone Button. Tony AlterCC BY

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” 

– Season One opening narration, The Twilight Zone television series (1959-1964)

What’s your Fourth of July tradition, fellow Americans?

For my family, it’s watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

I have to ask myself: Why do I love this series? Why is it so addictive? After all, special effects have advanced light-years since these shows were filmed; some of the outer space/alien/futuristic costumes and settings are primitive, even laughable. Rod Serling, garbed in dress jacket and skinny tie, strolls out of inconspicuous places – other rooms in houses, offices, or even the woods – to comment on the rising action and the characters,  occasionally smoking a cigarette in true ’60s vogue.

Part of the fun is seeing famous people when they were heartrendingly young, when their stars were still on the rise: Carol Burnett, Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (THE Captain Kirk, before the inception of Star Trek). There’s Burgess Meredith, the best of the best character actors, Mickey Rooney beautifully playing an angry drunk. The furniture and props in many episodes, some fashionably chic, some commonplace, are now vintage, nostalgic slices of a bygone era. Something must also be said for the show’s camera work, the strategic zooms, the compelling close-ups. In truth, between some captivating characterizations and the cinematography, there’s a great bit of artistry in The Twlight Zone.

But all that’s just part of it. What really draws the viewer, ultimately, is the story.

The Twilight Zone breaks the dimensions of time and space, to be sure – it takes us away from Earth, brings us to an Earth we don’t recognize, allows us to step into the past and sometimes into a future that isn’t future anymore (I just saw a calendar on the wall of a restaurant in  one futuristic episode: 1974. Geez.). Statues come to life;  a warm, vibrant grandmother is really a custom robot; dolls talk, wreaking havoc and destruction. People down on their luck find good fortune; people lose fortunes; people are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves; people possess supernatural powers that are often abused or taken advantage of by others.

The most haunting thing about The Twilight Zone isn’t the supernatural, however. It’s the journey within, the recognition of the worst parts of ourselves. Selfishness and greed are common themes, with catastrophic consequences – not that the Zone is didactic. In the spirit of the best short stories, with O. Henry-esque twists at the end, The Twilight Zone follows the dark convolutions of the human psyche. Endings are intriguing, but not always happy.

My favorite episode is “A Stop at Willoughby.” A man is locked into a job he hates by a demanding, socialite wife; a hardcore boss berates him for his ineptitude and lack of drive. He’s miserable; he can’t please anyone, least of all himself. On the train commute between home and work, he falls asleep and dreams of a stop that isn’t on the line – a back-in-time place, where women carry parasols and children go fishing and men ride penny-farthing bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheel). The vision of this place, Willoughby, is so real and inviting that the man thinks about getting off there in his dream.  He wakes to the ongoing pressures of his life, but yearns more and more for the slower, contented pace of Willoughby. His wife mocks him for wanting to be Huckleberry Finn, then turns her back on him just as he caves from the pressures at work. On the train, he dreams of Willoughby once more, and this time he gets off, where the townspeople greet him cheerfully by name, as if they’ve always known him, as if he belongs there.

The story doesn’t quite end here; there’s a final scene with a big final twist, but I would be the ultimate spoiler if I told it here. The episode – all the episodes – are meant to be experiences for the viewer. Here’s part of the closing narration: “Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is part of The Twilight Zone.”

Perhaps that’s the pull of the Zone – that beyond the darkness, horror, oppression, bad choices, fears, the worst of humanity, there lies something better, that’s worth the pain of overcoming. Where morbid fascinations, bystander mentalities, selfish desires and regrets melt away. A place of healing, of peace, of freedom – where the best of humanity thrives, has a voice that’s heard. It’s not a place to be merely maintained, but is always being actively created.

What does that sound like to you? What would a Magic 8-Ball say?

Utopia? Very doubtful.

America? Most likely.

The Twilight Zone? Yes definitely.

So celebrate.

Cherish. Savor. Digest. Mull.

Not just food, but your tradition, your story. Yours as well as others’.

And see beyond.