A long hiatus from the blog. Chalk it up to spring fever, everything alive pushing up through dead grass like these false hellebores. Earthy birthday candles. So I'm taking some deep breaths, slowing down some to write. These reflections are from our first trip into the field on the boat this season, into Resurrection Bay. Could there be a more appropriate name for the place we start each summer season? So this is a dispatch from a bay called resurrection, somewhere on a planet called resurrection: my divine teacher.
On the boat, rocking. Thumb Cove. Figures moving down the beach. Mountain slopes deep in old snow. A holiday weekend. We take out place among many anchored boats. The air cold, metallic, old snow’s exhalation. Craig asleep already in the bunk. Breath of life, divine teacher, the chant I’m listening to says, I bow to you again and again. Despite my resistance at leaving home, now, in the evening, at anchor, I feel that I have actually come home. Left useless things behind, returned to something essential, a kind of salvation. (I know this is fleeting). Water endlessly moving, cradle endlessly rocking (Whitman), the cup a hand makes dipping water from a stream, bringing it to the mouth, the cup a bay makes, a cirque, a valley. The thing held (me) (you) (time). And part of the ache of it is the knowledge that it’s fleeting. (The water in the cupped hand leaking out drip by drip no matter how tight I clench my fingers, so drink fast, slurp it up!)
Speaking of (time) can it be true that it’s been an entire year since I returned to the ocean for the first time after cancer treatment? That I’ve lived out a whole year? Been given 365 days, scooped each one into my cupped hand, drank it down? All of these days, mine, now, inside? That I’m allowed another, this one with quivery, mercuric water twitching like the hide of a horse? I feel the external things falling away, how I am defined by others, how I measure myself against others, all the meanness, all definitions, slipping away. This is mercy, I am thinking, this right-now-awareness-stopped-time-sensation one of my grad students calls “momentness.” The thing a poem tries to capture but can’t. This is it. And of course it’s always present, this mercy, and was a year ago, two, forty-five. There are animals who’ve died in the deep winter snows I’m looking at, animals buried in avalanches, there are hunted and killed birds, and still, mercy is this place. Leaving home to come to the water is to come into the presence of this mercy. (I know this is fleeting, this feeling, it won’t last). So I pin it to the page, I try, right here:
It didn’t last, no, this is another kind of momentness, the merciless kind. Out in rough water following a small group of orcas, I’m seasick, and I can’t help myself, it reminds me of chemo. Not just the nausea but the trapped feeling. Here, I am trapped by a limited set of sensations, a limited palette of colors (mostly grays), a limited acoustic repertoire (chugging of pistons, groan of engine, clanks of shifting gears, the boat’s sway and shudder). Where is the silvery light, the mercy? Mark Nepo writers: “No matter how I lift my heart, my shadow creeps in wait behind, background to my joy.” This is fleeting, but in the grip of the unmerciful, that awareness is lost, or is irrelevant. Conclusion: I am NOT enlightened. All around me, the islands we walk on at night, speak to it: merciful, merciless life.
I dreamed that cancer came back, Dr. S. told me I had five days left to live, just five, five exactly. At first, I railed, I screamed, clawed, wept, raged. Impossible, that I could let life go. But then, as in a dream I had just about a year ago, this strange fog began to creep in, on the inside, a sort of grogginess, a little like anesthesia. And I began to let go. And it was easy. I lay down to die, perhaps the way a moose in the deep snow does. It was so natural. This winter, a lot of moose died around Homer in the hard, long winter, the deep snows. One day, Craig and I, out skiing, spotted two brown bear juveniles playing with the bones and hide of a moose, throwing them around a creek bottom. They were alive on the snow, in the sunlight, unaware of us, and the moose was over, and yet it was present, a part of the living earth, its surface, like a piece of ordinary detritus that makes up one of artist Sarah Sze’s sculptures . Divorced from its moose-story. A player in some other, ongoing history of life on earth, a plaything in the earth's ongoing memoir.
Today, I kayaked to a rocky shoreline, carefully extricated myself from the cockpit, scrambled up into the forest, followed the trail of river otters through the blueberry thickets, and suspended from branches, all along the trail, were the black and white wings of killed murres. Gruesome decorations. Looked almost like they’d been impaled on the branches. Or like they’d been carelessly shed, cape-skins thrown over twigs, then abandoned to the rain. The sharp breastbones protruding from matted feathers, marking the place where the spirit of the bird detached and fled.
When I love it out here, it’s because in the woods, all my fear of dying goes away. It is no mystery, just the facts: these wings were once murres. But that’s not so. I look carefully for signs of bears. I do not want to die of cancer; I do not want to be eaten by a bear. How I will die: that knowledge isn’t given.
Tonight, in the near-darkness, the island of severed wings is alive with the cheeps of nesting storm petrels, who come to land only once each year, at night, to burrow into the ground under tree roots or tussocks to lay their eggs. An island of hungry mouths. Bones and feathers litter the burrow entrances. The body, my body, yours, is a similar island. Little deaths, and the urge to live, manic aliveness, bottomless depression, coexisting, feathers, bones, eggs, cheeps. In the body, little deaths asleep, burrowed in the bones, lungs, brain or liver, and every moment, the body replenishing itself, renewed. William Stafford said “the darkness around us is deep,” but so is the light. The light around me is so damn deep.
I dip my hands into this stream, and all I have is what the stream yields up, what’s in this cup of my palm, this sip, these severed wings, that silver light, this moment. Today, I followed the stream to its source, a pond in the forest half-filled with snow. From its mud-bottom, the water looked nearly black. Half-white and frigid with enormous anvils of snow. Surrounded by forest, by nests and corpses of seabirds, I kneeled down in the mud, filled my hands and drank it all.