You learn, don’t you, by living? How quickly the light changes, from full and warm to slanted and cold in the time it takes to turn your head; how your love, given, turns to hate, burns to ash in the wrong hands, but blooms into an endless meadow of wildflowers, bright and fragrant, in the right hands; how living is steps and missteps, backwards and forwards, forever deepening, ripening.
Last October I had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater, Transylvania University, for a reading honoring the founder of Larkspur Press, Gray Zeitz. Among those reading that night were Bobbie Ann Mason and Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, but I had my eyes on only one poet–Wendell Berry. I was introduced to Berry’s writing many years ago, before I even read poetry let alone wrote poetry, by singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson at a church VBS picnic. When he found out that I–a proud Kentuckian–had never read Wendell Berry, he said I simply must. Properly chastised, I read Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter, two of Berry’s beautiful novels soon after, and while I knew he was a poet, I didn’t pick up a collection of his poetry for several more years (mostly out of my own weird notion that I just wasn’t a “poetry person”). When I began to read poetry about two years ago, Berry’s was some of the first work that I read. He hooked me as solidly with his poetry as he had with his prose, and I was a goner. I consider him to be one of the major influences on my poetry, but he hasn’t just influenced my writing. He has influenced the way I look at life, and living, and being human. And through his writing and living, how nature is as sacred a sanctuary as a church building.
Meeting him…it was an honor of the highest degree. I didn’t tell him that I am a writer; a poet. I fangirled. That’s ok.
Probably we should. Beneath the oaks, the hickories, the cedars, leafy limbs reaching, stretching upward outward entwined above, roots sunk deep in ancient ground below, and us on the limestone trail drenched in sunlight beside a glade, equally soaked and thick with black-eyed Susans five feet high.
There’s no one here but us, and the field sparrows, and who would they tell anyway?
For Jared, and scientists everywhere, who illuminate and magnify awe.
Here this cooling September night, wrapped in a flannel shirt, I sit with my feet propped on the old porch rail. Resting my head on the back of the Adirondack chair points my gaze perfectly, directly, at Jupiter hanging on the archer’s wing tonight, and Saturn inches away in a sky the color of spilled ink, pricked with pinholes of light.
I know little beyond their brightness, content as I am with the vastness of night, the mystery of breath, and the breadth of unknowing.
While pondering this, I think of my friend, how he knows Saturn, intimately, as only a scientist does, knows the way one knows the face of a child, or a lover, its contours and planes, patterns and pressures, its icy rings of splintered comets and shattered moons, and the swirling of hydrogen and helium, a state so unsuitable for sustaining our breath, yet ripe for nourishing our curiosities and imaginations.
And his knowing illuminates the awe of my unknowing, magnifies the sacred mystery of sentient being.
A cawing band of crows calls me through the open window. I strain to see them through the trees, searching between the limbs for their sturdy black bodies against the blue sky,
weightless in flight.
I envy them their wings, long for my own to lift my weighted, earthbound body to the heavens.
The rough calls fade to nothing.
Sighing I raise my hand to my chest, press that hollow below the collarbone just above my wild heart– constrained– where she lives, tattooed in ceaseless flight; fingers trace the delicate wingtips and tailfeathers whipped out in black ink under my skin, and know I, too, am
weightless in flight,
arms turned wings stretched out against the blue sky in my own soul.
What you are is what you become by peeling off the skin blistered from standing too long in someone else’s sun. It’s turpentine dissolving, a putty knife scraping the paint you didn’t choose. The wrong shades of the wrong colors, too thick on the skin. And it’s a cocooning, a shedding, a dropping away– as such metamorphoses are; a leaving behind of all that didn’t fit; a walking out into the night. Now take up the brush, and choose your own palette, then color yourself in the blues and the grays—the hues of your soul, with moonlight in your eyes, the gloaming on your cheeks, and stars aligned down your back. Go—fly away with fresh painted wings, your self at last your own.
This morning as I sit in my chair on the porch, my tea steaming and the grass wet with dew, the green garbage truck rumbles onto the street, brakes screeching in protest. Its claw-arm stretches from the side of its great underbelly, reaching and lifting each gray container, up and over; emptying. It makes its way around the circle of the court, upsetting the calm and scattering the house finches and robins convened in the street at the edge of my yard, raising a flutter of complaint. It lumbers away, completing its work– under two minutes, I’m sure–then turns the corner and is gone, though I hear faintly its lurching as it works the next street over.
It’s necessary, I know, this convenience of suburbia; and the finches soon return to the feeders I’ve filled with safflower and sunflower seeds, while chirping at me their sharp annoyance, with which I heartily agree.