Friday, May 30, 2014

wild geese.

 I was about three when my parents took me to a friend's house for dinner and I fell in the pool. I don't remember this part, only the floating candles shaped like lotus blossoms, which our hostess lit for me after nightfall. My father tells me there was an ominous silence, and they ran over to find me in the pool, struggling and unable to swim. My mother tells me that I was totally fine, I'd been taking swimming lessons which my dad didn't know about, and I was trying to dog-paddle. I feel this illustrates the difference between their individual parenting styles, which continues today, thirty years later. I remember it as a warm summer day, and I must have been entranced by those flower-shaped candles. I still love lotus flowers, and I still love to swim.

Much later I was a sophomore in high school and learning to paddle a whitewater kayak. Unlike sea kayaks, these are meant to flip over and then back up, using a twist of your hips and a swift shove with the flat of the paddle. I never got the hang of it. This was borne home to me one October afternoon, when we went out on Lake Washington for a practice session. All the guys had made it back already, and I with my inferior upper-body strength was still what felt like a hundred yards offshore. A wave tipped me over and suddenly I was suspended upside-down in the lake, my paddle twisting uselessly in one hand, my apron trapping me tightly to the kayak. The apron is what keeps you from a) getting splashed and b) falling out of the kayak every time you flip over. This is only useful if you can flip yourself back up. If you can't, you pull a loop at the front of your apron to disengage it from the lip of the seat opening and get out that way, which seems easy when you are upright on dry land but not quite as easy when you are hanging upside-down underwater.

Mostly I remember how long the seconds seemed as I tried to free myself from the kayak. It was cold, and dark, and I couldn't see anything. I became entangled in whatever weeds are floating around a lake in autumn, fighting my apron and my life-jacket and my long braid of hair. Much later I would hear Mike Daisey talk about nearly drowning in a pond in the middle of a Maine winter, and I would think about this afternoon and how thankful I was that I was wearing the wetsuit that my mom had bought for me a few days before, and that my glasses were strapped to my head with pair of neon-bright Croakies. I finally pulled the apron loose and wriggled free of the kayak. I hadn't lost my paddle, or my glasses, or my shoes. My friend Blake saw me swimming towards shore, and came back out to tow me in. I have never been happier to see anyone in my entire life.

A few days ago a friend and former colleague died in that same lake, not far from where my kayak had tipped me into the cold October waves. In her sixties, she had been ill for some years with a progressively worsening brain disorder, a profound cruelty to someone with a brilliant mind. It robbed her of the ability to speak or even to write. It was about to take away whatever independence she had left, and so she made this, her final choice. She walked into the darkness while she still could. My heart aches for her, but only because she had to do it alone. This has been a long goodbye. There will be more of them in my life, and each one teaches me again and again, it never gets easier, not really. Instead I choose to remember these things: she loved birds, white chocolate martinis, and poetry. It was through her that I discovered Mary Oliver, for which I have always been grateful. She was as stubborn and immovable as a rock, but so gentle you did not realize that you were beating your head against a wall of granite. Now she is finally as free as the wild geese.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


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