Source: Loss and Light
Tomorrow is my oldest brother’s birthday. It will be the first he is not here to celebrate with us. He died in May, sinking under the weight of Alzheimer’s. He left us with our own buoyant memories of him, as well as the immeasurable space of his absence.
Space doesn’t fill back up I’ve found. Porous beings that we are, we carry the holes around with us. They momentarily fill; with the sighs we exhale, with glances of light, with memory’s shadow, but more often than not it is a space that maintains it own solitary nature; loss.
As time passes we choose to fill that absence with stone or light. Loss, and its companion grief, are often portrayed as weights, stones we hoist and carry with us. But I think of that loss we carry as the intermingling of the light and shadow we inhabit. Or maybe it’s the shadow and light that inhabit us.
When I walk in the summer woods around my home I’m struck by the play of sunlight and dark. It’s another dimension deep in under the trees, alternating layers of light and shadow, ground and air, birdsong and silence. Dappled light shifts with the breeze, the hour, the tilt of my head. It all changes moment by moment. This is the passage of loss, the geography of grief. A landscape that maps itself.
Over a year ago I wrote that Alzheimer’s had taken my brother from a geography of Northwestern city streets with a background of mountains and sea, to a geography that was unmappable, unchartered, the very ground full of sudden shifts. Like the karst landscape where I live, his surroundings became a place where sinkholes unexpectedly appeared revealing caverns. Eventually those sinkholes, his landscape of changing ground without the guideposts of memory’s familiar signs swallowed him.
I miss him. I miss our phone conversation, I miss our visits, I miss knowing he is there, My brother was a solid path for me and now that path is gone. In its place the loss of him shifts my world with shadow and fills it again with light. I am more sharply aware of the beauty around me. Thinking of gravity, thinking of flight I take measure of the ground.
The waft of ripe peaches fills me as soon as I step onto the screened in porch. Yesterday’s haul is piled on the old formica table waiting to be cut. A little for tonight’s cobbler, more frozen for Thanksgiving pies, and some just for that immediate glory of fruit fresh from the tree. We planted the tree soon after we moved into this house, now more than 20 years ago, and this summer it is yielding the most bounteous harvest I can remember.
I chose a white peach tree because there were two at our family’s home in Rockland County. More than half a century later I can taste the trickle of juice on my tongue and conjure not just the peach’s texture and taste but the way the sky looked to a seven year old as I lay in the grass and the shape shifting clouds drifted high overhead played out the tales from the Blue Fairy Book.
The world was limitless then, I had no sense of endings, no premonitions of fears. There was wanting, longing, dreams I may have doubted would come true, but the hard lines of mortality hadn’t found their way into my landscape, not yet.
Out on the porch on a this perfect summer day I sort the peaches. Biting into one I am surprised at how rough the exterior is, how I have to push past the harsh outer fuzz to the sweetness, and then how that is all that is there. That moment of ripeness, and the sky mottled with clouds, shapes I am not so sure I can discern.
The winter and spring were awash with travel, small trips and large adventures. This summer is about home. About taking the experiences, deaths, joys, changes, sounds, sites and shifts and sitting with them until they are part of me.
This is not to say I am not busy, this is not to say that my days are not full. There is work to do, money to raise, events to organize, News to track and legislators to phonePages to write and poems to send and a novel to revise. There are dishes to wash after the meals have been made and eaten. There is laundry to do. There are books to read and letters to write. Grand boys to delight in.
But this summer above all there is a home to tend to. The home I live in and the one that lives in me. Each time I return I become more attached to this small piece of land. To the rise leading up to the house, the woods that surround, the ever changing pond and the light.
Yesterday morning there was a haze across the filed and a cardinal as red as only a cardinal can be against all the verdant green. As if it the world, or this small part of it, was saturated hue and tint. Everything glowed inside out.
I’ve been back home for just about as long as I was gone but time’s measure is distinct even though the length of it is close to the same. Time’s texture and weight are different, its viscosity changes, especially the way it slides through my hands.
Traveling has a way of bringing things into focus; mountains, rivers, stretches of sea all take on clarity. Skies extend past the horizon. Lines have curves. There are multiple paths in every direction. There is an invitation to explore.
Back home I am distracted by the list of to dos. must dos, should dos. Like looking though dusty glasses, my vision is not opaque, but it is clouded. I am walking in a swamp where there are only small stones to rest on, some easily, some more precariously. Hours and minutes are swallowed and there in no trace left of them.
This morning I grew quiet enough to hear the birdsong, Cardinals and crows, a distant hawk, the owl that always thinks its dusk, the many others I cannot name. The sound widened the space around my home. It broadened time. For a brief few seconds everything was right outside my window; the Andes, the southernmost bays, the wide Pacific beach, the Rio Plata emptying into the Atlantic. For just a moment time was silk, cocoon, shroud, thread, weightless flight.
We have been home for three days, the time feels both longer and shorter. One thing for sure, it doesn’t feel like I was never gone. It’s cloudy and full of tones of gray today, a good day for settling in. It reminds of the very earliest days of fall in the far southern reaches of the Americas, even though so much is different. Then again, I guess the turnings at the equinox, whether Spring or Fall, share in more ways then they differ. Still, I am surprised how standing by small pond in the dull afternoon in the midst of southern Indiana’s rolling hills reminds of the farthest length of South America. The glaciers didn’t reach here, and there you can feel the breath of ice even in the sun.
Walking the woods this morning not a single tree felt similar to those in Patagonia or Tierra de Fuego, The world above and below distinctly different; sounds, textures, shapes and scents. There I felt like the world was simultaneously primordial and new. Here the land feels gentled, there it felt raw and bared. And the quiet has a different weight. The sky seemed closer there and the horizon not aline but a curve. The place where water met land only a suggestion of difference hunting at the proximity of the vastness of sea and the southernmost continent, Antarctica.
I just finished reading Terra Incognito by Sara Wheeler. I began it in the northern part of Patagonia, Chile, right after finishing her Travels in a Thin Country. Both were written in the 90s. I happened upon her looking for books about travel in South America and am surprised I never read, or even heard of her before. Sort of a biography of a land, mixed with travelogue, history and her own reflections. I found both books intriguing, though I have to admit I was ready to be done with the book about Antarctica as we were flying north to Buenos Aires. It wasn’t until today as I was finishing the book, over inundated with information, that I realized exactly what kept me reading. A shared notion of why we travel, “Despite everything I had gone through to get where I was….it seemed to me then that the external journey meant nothing at all.”
Grateful for the quiet hum of my house and the end of the road where we live, I’ll travel from here for the next while. The journey continuing, the wall clock ticking, the comforting logs alight in the wood burning stove.
Waking to a beautiful clear day,the coming autumn on the wind from the sea, here in Montevideo, Uruguay. It is our last night, we’ll go to a local Tango salon after spending much of the day in the sprawling weekly “Féria” market.
A last day where north is the direction of warmth and south takes you to the ice. Another day of suspended chores and unconstructured time. And beginning to imagine how to carrry the journey into the daily, and returning home to the loss of a friend. I have lost three close friends in the past six years, each loss making me more conscious of the precious precosciouness of time. How close pain resides to love, how kindness is the balm for both.
Travel strengthens my awareness, focuses me on the present. It grants me a heightened awareness of both precariousness and faith. We are all immigrants moving from place to place, curiosity to idea, sureness to possibility.
I think of travel having three stages; first imagining and planning, the actual experience and after, the longest of the three, reflecting. Thoughts begin to simultaneously turn toward home and remembering places we’ve passed through, conversations with people, landscapes. I hope to carry the wonder with me as I dwell in the comfort of the ordinary.
Ushuaia Argentina Tierra de Fuego “final del mundo” This is what the signs and souvenirs say; the end of the world, but what if it is the beginning? In this place where lake and land, sky and sea, all merge into mist that rises and falls through the turning of the day.
In this place where the breath of cold is never far away, couldn’t it be possible that it is the beginning of the world? This place where water is always in all its states; ice and vapor and liquid. Could we have emerged from cold, in the mist in the midst of seas?Edit
We hiked up to Martial Glacier, up and up for miles as the path wound round the broken stones of morrain. As we claimed higher ground the cold cloud of the glacier’s air rested on our shoulders before we could even see any snow. Up as far as we could go we arrived at just a tiny finger of the Glacier reaching down. On the way I caught site of a small brown moth colored with subtle shades of reds and greens, like the terrain. It was the only one I saw, and I lost sight of it again until we reached the snow, where it fluttered round me, before heading into the heights where I couldn’t follow. A last hint of summer before the world turns cold.
Manolo and I seem to be drawn to the ends of roads. We’ve ended up in some of our favorite places following an unknown road to its very end. Our home is at the end of a dead end lane. In Ushuaia we watch the gray sky turn to gray night over the Beagle Channel. We are marking our 40th year of being together. We met in a northern place, and so it seems fitting to have come so far south that it feels like north again.
You become part of a different landscape, reside in a different kind of time. Each day reveals a new geography both inner and outer.
I just learned my good friend died. I am saddened and sorry. The distance of thousands of miles leaves no route to offer any comfort to her family. It illuminates the solitary side of grief. I trust in my home’s strong community to offer support. I will continue to hold our friendship.
All week I have been working on a translation, part of a Neruda poem I had never seen before buying the collection at his home La Sebastiana, Valparaiso last week. I wanted to offer it here for Toby but it is not ready. I am not ready.
I am remembering to treasure each day, every loved one, as best I can. This is what I know; somehow we are both fleeting and enduring.