My brother Andy just left to make the 4 hour drive back home to Connecticut. I’m alone at the house, sitting in the sun on the back patio on two couch cushions, and it’s hot, with a gusty breeze jangling the wind chimes and roving through the pines. The two cats wander over, try to drink the tea from my cup. I push them away, but they don't care. The orange one I called "therapy cat" last year.
I’m still experiencing time warps, especially when I’m alone. A post-traumatic stress response, I suppose, an overlapping of the past with the present. Wherever I look, I’m seeing multiple layers, like I’ve got dragonfly eyes now. I see the trees the way I saw them last year, standing in the outdoor shower, hot water on my bald head, and I see them as they are now, same trees, new eyes. I hear birds in the forest, and in counterpoint, those songs also play in my memory. The wind chimes hanging outside the back door trigger the memory of wind chimes in the upstairs window, the ones my friend Bonita brought me when she came to help me through my first chemo treatment. It’s a little confusing. And not altogether easy. I’m homesick, and I can’t tell if it’s a memory of homesickness or the real thing. This time last year, Craig was here with me, and we were waiting for May 12, the date the surgeon would excise a tumor from my body. The wind gusts strongly now and chases those memories away. Andy says he’s seen my blog posts become less inward, but it feels like my real life still arises from deep within. There’s an overlapping of self as well as time, as though a significant part of my real life occurs under water. Only alone, only writing, only in quiet, do I understand the above and the below. Only in solitude do I feel everything there is to feel. I’m still figuring out who this version of my self is, this creature emerging from some cast-off form. Or is it the self I’ve always been? Maybe going through cancer treatment peeled casings away to reveal hidden underlayers, the way the rough gray bark of the birches in my yard in Alaska peels off when it reaches a certain age and size and exposes the thin papery white and rosy skin. Through this process, it gets more, not less, innocent.
I forgot about the wind on the Cape, how it’s as intrinsic to this place as the blonde sand, the pine trees, the ponds and inlets, the shingled houses, the antique shops. The wind dragged a high, gray, blank mantle of cloud in to cover the morning’s blue sky, and on a walk with Mara and Phoebe, a few raindrops hit our faces. This morning, in yoga class, in the corpse pose, I experienced it again, a feeling of incredible luck. I wonder if it will ever go away, if I’ll ever forget. I hope not. I lay there and the words “I get to stay here on earth” came into my head, along with the feeling, the electricity in my body, the joy. It’s that reprieve after the 6-month follow-up, the piece of paper I imagine handed to me by Dr. Schnipper. “You’re free to go now. I’ll see you in six.” I to remember when I felt that before so acutely. Two memories arise. The first: how it felt to leave the dark confessional booth as a kid, after the old robed priest behind the opaque window absolved me of my accumulated sins, wiped the slate clean of “I disobeyed my parents five times, I took the Lord’s name in vain 10 times, I was mean to my sister 15 times, I coveted my neighbor’s goods 5 times” and set me free. I imagined all the black blotches swiped clean by the priest's hand, my soul, round as a discus, white as the moon, purified That’s what the “all clear,” as my sister puts it, feels like. (And I also remember the first fresh sin. Here we go again).
And it also feels like 20 years ago, when I’d spent four months studying orcas in Prince William Sound, living in a wall tent on a remote island in the rainforest, searching for whales on a 20 foot boat, and it was the day I was supposed to leave, to head back to civilization: Fairbanks, grad school, my cabin, my friends, fresh vegetables, bookstores, ice cream, coffee shops, street cloths. And I decided not to go after all. Watching that boat roar off without me, I stood on the back deck of Craig’s boat, which, ironically, was called Lucky Star, and felt almost weak in the knees with relief and joy. I get to stay, I murmured to myself, like a prayer. Rain fell on my face, gulls shrieked, the Lucky Star's engine rumbled. I get to stay. Every fall, I grieve when we leave the Sound, and as we head down one of the passages leading to the Gulf of Alaska, I sit on the flying bridge and watch the birds and animals that get to live in that place all the time: the sea otters, sea lions, kittiwakes, marbled murrelets. One year, I tell myself, we won’t leave in September. When the Equinox storm drives all the other boats out, I’ll stand on an island beach and say to a sea otter floating on its back eating a starfish a few yards out: I get to stay with you. I get to watch winter come, live on the boat, anchor up in – get this, a place called Lucky Bay – and hunker in for the first big winter blow with Craig, step out on a snowy deck in the morning, to the metallic scent of snow on hemlock branches.
That’s the future, though, a thing, I know more than ever, is not solid ground, nothing to build a house or bank a life upon. So I look out the window and say it to this place, this day: I get to stay.
6:30 am, and I’m looking out the window at jittery bare trees and a textured gray sky, the sound of a few cars driving past on 6A, my sister making coffee downstairs, but it’s still quiet enough to detect the high harmonics in my ears – the one remaining side-effect of Taxol treatment. My friend Jo says the Big Bang was tuned to an A, and maybe my ear is now, too: retuned to the sound of creation. It might come in handy if I ever play my oboe in an orchestra again.
Creation, spring, rebirth, it all goes together, and here, the sound of spring for me isn’t so much one bird, as it is in Alaska (the varied thrush), but the chorus of spring peepers, one of my favorite sounds in the world. Last night, driving back from a friend’s, I opened both front windows of the car when I turned down Lower Road so I could read the geography through my ears, the presence of water: hills and valleys of peeper calls, a sonic throb, crescendos, decrescendos, near, far, and at a stop sign beside a swamp, so close I could distinguish the single pulsed bell tone of a single frog. I know they’re tiny. What’s it like for a young peeper when for the first time the impulse arises from deep within, an impulse so much bigger than its physical self? Do its eyes grow wide when it opens its mouth and that peal, ten times its size, escapes? Does giving birth to a baby feel that way too? Maybe we’re all holding inside us a potential, a song, a heart, bigger than our bodies, bigger than our ideas of ourselves. Maybe spring peepers truly sing their hearts out. To peep also means to appear briefly. That’s another thing we have in common with frogs.
I open a book that came in the mail yesterday, The Forgotton Language, an anthology of nature-oriented poems, and I find one by the late John Hay, who is by many considered to be the write laureate of Cape Cod. It’s called “Music by the Waters.”
Out of the marbled underwaters,
artifacts of surf, comes the shining
of bubble and frog-green weed; the salivated
quartz egg; purple dye of greater storms
in minor shells; all things touched by tides;
patterns of water not of water;
castoff, like speckled eyes from deeper sight,
tones on the mind. I pick them and they sing.
My friend and neighbor Asia e-mailed me this morning. She’s visiting her sister Molly Lou in France. Molly Lou and Asia are both sisters to me, and now Molly Lou has a one year-old baby boy. Asia described being in France as a dream she’s having (the time difference between Alaska and France turns day into night), and that she will “collect evidence” of it as long as possible. I know how she feels. Maybe that’s a better way to describe the time warp I’ve been experiencing since being on Cape Cod. Only I’m having more than one dream at the same time. And all I can do is collect evidence, sift it, sort it, interpret it. I told a friend last night that I feel like a woman in a fairy tale who must spend hours in an attic room each day taking all the strands of all the dreams she’s collected and weaving them into a tapestry, not knowing what images will form, not moved to do it by plan or dream of outcome. The only important thing is the act of weaving, like a tiny frog who sings because the impulse inside rises up and overpowers all else.
In one of my dreams, I wake up each morning to the same bird songs, the same human noises in the house, to the same body, but my song is muffled. My head is bald. My fingertips are numb. My body speaks louder than my heart those mornings, and it’s full of complaint and chemicals, and those things, unlike songs, weigh a ton. In the parallel dream, I wake up each morning groggy, a little stiff, but still amazed that the weight is gone. I wake up to the dream of a healthy body, “temporarily able-bodied,” as my friend said last night. An old prayer then arises, from childhood, but altered: Give me this day, my daily breath.
And then I think of another friend, the one who had the biopsy, who wakes wondering if the phone call will come today. Give her this day. That’s a parallel dream too. I want to believe that living through cancer stretches and expands the singing heart muscle so it can hold all these realities at the same time in that weaving, all the unknowns and uncertainties. This morning’s weaving pulls a strand from France, one from a drive last night, several from a year ago, one from a woman across town, and one from a poem called “Dunes” by A.R. Ammons, the poem’s last line: “Firm ground is not available ground.”
Yes, it's shifting ground, and sometimes the dream is bad, frightening, dark. But the song that nonetheless rises from deep within me and escapes is I get to stay. So I’d better get going. It’s time to place my feet on the sand, to wander around collecting evidence of today’s dream, to search for the source of that deep impulse to weave or weep or scream or sing. And to tend it.