Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

Soldier

On a flight I was booked on recently, the gate attendant announced prior to boarding that we would carry a fallen Marine in cargo and his relatives on the plane. A sergeant from Spokane, she told us, had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Everyone stood up and walked to the wall of windows so they could see the proceedings. Perhaps earlier in my life I would have not watched to make a poltical point against the war, but many of my formerly rigid angles are now rounded corners so I rose to see something I’d never been in the position to witness.

Down on the tarmac, two decorated Marines approached a Delta Airlines luggage container. They pulled back the heavy canvas flap that hung in front of a large, rectangular wooden crate. This was no shiny mahogany coffin — it was straight from overseas, in limbo here in Raleigh, the sergeant’s brethren doing their best to honor his sacrifice. The two men carefully unfolded an American flag and placed it on top of the crate, and then they stood up rod-straight and hand-saluted the sky from their brows. Two women stood close by, dabbing their eyes with tissues, the wife and the mother it appeared. A third Marine with his beret at his chest held vigil beside them. Then a Delta Airlines employee walked up and hoisted the crate onto the conveyor belt, which took it slowly up toward the stowage cabin.

When the coffin finally disappeared into the plane’s belly, everyone went back to their devices or children. We soon boarded the plane, and as I walked in I noticed the two women and the Marine sitting in the first row of coach.

I kept glancing over to them during the flight. I thought about the responsibility of the Marine delivering the sergeant’s body back to Spokane, the airport there most likely hung with sad banners. What exactly would he say? A veteran I talked to later said the man most likely did not know the fallen sergeant personally — he was fulfilling the role he’d be trained to do. I wondered about the wife, and the mother: their shock and awe at the hole suddenly gaping.

In spite of the multihued strands of folks coming through our house, I don’t have one close friend or family member who has recently served in the military. I feel almost embarrassed to have strong feelings about war when I am so divorced from the military. And yet most of the men and women I have met in the military, at least those of my generation, have a sense of sadness and resignation in their eyes, not much of the glory that I’ve sometimes seen in World War II veterans. Are cheery old war stories just propaganda? Or was service truly more glorious once? Is it that nostalgic hope that keeps today’s soldiers going when their sense of security has slipped away on the fuzzy lines that make our frontier?

This morning, I looked at a photograph in the obituary section of the newspaper of a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. I paid attention to how I felt: did I have a different response to him than I did to all the other photographs of people who had recently passed away? I did, partially because the soldier was so young and also because his death seems so unfair — he had such a sweet face, and I imagine he had good intentions when he went off to fight in a war that in reality has been misguided from the start. (To imagine channeling young soldiers’ willingness to serve and their quest for self-worth into something fruitful! The Iraq War veteran Paul Chappell has spoken of his dream of a military corps trained to respond to the planet’s growing number of natural disasters, their boots on another nation’s soil a true blessing.) For all the pomp and circumstance behind the slogan “Support our Troops,” the politicians who send our young men and women to fight ill-conceived and poorly executed wars are in fact exploiting our troops rather than supporting them. Part of me doesn’t want to honor this soldier’s life more than I do the other people on the obituary page precisely because I’ve seen my own government use our heart strings to orchestrate further military misadventures, which not only leave behind human devastation but also demand huge infusions of public money that could instead be funding our own crumbling infrastructure. Maybe I’d feel differently if our wars solved global problems instead of exacerbating them.

And so I must sit with a steely resolve to fight against our military machine and a simultaneous feeling of tenderness toward the foot soldiers who serve it. And I also must point to all the people who make sacrifices for important causes. I will always respect devotion, but I don’t place the U.S. military’s sacrifices on any sort of higher plane. I am not against formally acknowledging the loss of military life, and yet there are also all the uncelebrated organ donors and fathers jumping in the way of incoming cars and peace activists losing their lives to bulldozers and even those sacrifices that don’t end in death but are nonetheless noble, the sleepless nights of vigil beside a dying sister’s bed. They, too, deserve yellow ribbons.

When we finally touched down in Atlanta, the plane bustled with impatient energy. The pilot came on and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, when we come to a stop, please stay seated and allow the sergeant’s family and the accompanying Marine to deplane first.” As the trio rose, the plane erupted in applause, and I clapped too as I felt a quick choke and a tear sneaking out the corner of my eye despite my best bravado.

Holy Moments

I know it when they arrive. My heart is suddenly a meadow I am walking through. I don’t need anything except exactly what I’m doing. I don’t know when these moments will strike — they usually come by surprise, and I think my face probably registers slight shock, almost like an orgasm but different.

The other day I saw someone in the middle of such a moment. He was waiting for the bus on a late morning that had turned warm after several days of cold. As I drove by, he closed his eyes and looked up toward the sky, like a cat narrow-gazed in a slant of sunlight coming in through the window.

What still frustrates me is how many moments unlike these dominate my days: minutes that total hours that total years when I ride shotgun in anxiety’s car or roll around in bed with fear. Other times I just run away from reality and sneak into that spot I’ve found beneath the stairs.

But there’s a strange algebra at work. If I can catch my own tendency to compulsively reject “off” moments as unholy, I’m suddenly sitting on a hefty mound of holy. If I hold too high a standard on being “connected” then I risk being blind to the slivers of the good shiver.

And so today, almost feeling trapped in a house full of toddlers, I ran outside and they chased me and knocked me down and climbed all over me, their playful clawing so insistent and total that I let my guard down for a moment and snuck into the palace the sentry usually protects. So grand and spacious that chamber!

I remember when my ninety-eight-year-old grandfather died a few years ago, I was so busy worrying about my eulogy and my toddler son’s aversion to formality that I almost went through the whole service without really connecting to what was happening around me. But then it hit me in the bathroom, Rio on my hip, notes in my pocket; grief grabbed my neck and suddenly the tears came. My son asked, “Papa, why are you crying?” and I just said, “Because I loved him.” The way I felt it then — marrow deep — is life’s elusive, ephemeral gift.