Deep in the Batch

With Annie and Rio in California for two weeks, I’ve been submerged in what a friend of mine once referred to as “Deep Batch.” It’s what happens to a man when his partner and kids are gone.

Deep Batch usually begins with a sweet honeymoon period where I am absolutely delighted to have no one to answer to. I get to do exactly what I want to do! What a change from the compromise inherent to cohabitation and parenting, blessed beings that they are. For days I lounged around, proudly not checking items off my overly long to-do list (I’ll have so much time on my hands, I’d thought during a pious moment days prior,  I’ll be able to accomplish so much! Ha.) I was messier than usual, resorting to my childhood ways of not really cleaning up after myself in the moment and instead leaving it for a furious cleaning session later on. I…sunk…into…shit.

There’s something to be said for this. I am dutiful, functional, and organized normally, so there’s a profound release in lying back deep into the sofa and doing absolutely nothing constructive. I started contemplating sloths.

Just then I heard a loud knock and opened the door to find two friends who visit sometimes: Stimulation and Anesthesia. You may have met them. I knew they’d come.

“What the hell are you doing on the couch?” they sneered. “You look terrible. Get something decent on and join us: we’re going to a fantastic party.”

Off we went.

It was truly fun for a while. But then the rush of the ride started to wear off. As much as indulgence can sound like “Me! Me! Me!” ultimately it’s not self-serving. And so I returned to where I was when I first touched down solo in Raleigh days before: the black hole of me. I’m not comfortable there! Never have been. It’s easier to check out or run away.

The next night I watched the film Another Year, which has a scene where a family is burying a mother. Only a handful of people are there, and a stranger presides over the short ceremony. The mother’s only son comes late and misses the service. Suddenly I started thinking of my own father, how alone he is, and I began to worry that his end might be like this. I felt my breath catch and I immediately recoiled, as though touching the fear that was coming up in my solitude would injure me. That night (and the subsequent two) I dreamed that I was tripping over monstrous snakes that appeared out of nowhere. In one, I jumped back in terror as a monstrous copperhead slithered in front of me, only to watch Annie and our good friend Kate swoop in calmly, put the snake in a bag, and take it away. What am I so scared of?

Pema Chödrön has referred to the art of finding “cool loneliness”: those sublime moments when we grab a flashlight and crawl into the hole of ourselves and accept what we find scrawled on the walls. I believe the term was first coined by D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in Women in Love, “What did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored….Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.”

Why was this kind of loneliness so elusive and fleeting? I’ve had moments of deep union with myself when I have stuck with my fear and traveled alone into my own abyss. Why could I not choose that again more readily?

I do not know. I do know that if I am patient I usually find my way there. If I overact to the times I fail, or run, then I get stuck on recrimination and am therefore closed to the moments when I do stand my ground, dig in, and come out holding the slippery light. And so I decided to surrender to my own vagaries and imperfections — if you are on a roller coaster, enjoy the damn ride. It was then that those slivers of light began to come in through the cracks: watching live music and feeling joy swell inside me from the sheer talent of the performers on stage, that warmth finally released in slow tears I didn’t bother to wipe away. Later that same night, an impromptu dance with a stranger: lively, daring, sensual. And the day I helped a friend; the gazpacho I made for my own delight; the many dips in the river to wipe off all the grime from the fight.

And then the sweetest ones came. Alone in the living room, listening to a song Annie and I sing together, and feeling an ache so deep for her I can barely believe it’s real. And then the next day, finding a card Rio made for me, the scrawled letters and the way they spelled “I will owas love you Timuthe.” It is then I truly miss them: not in that needy way of requiring their anchors, but in knowing they are allies and partners on this jagged path we each ultimately face alone.

What the Dragonfly Says

I start my day at the roses, hundreds of yellow and red suns bending toward the sky, and as I walk I let my shoes move until they stop, leaving me in front of a yellow bloom quivering in the still morning air. As children exit school buses with field-trip glee I stop to smell her, and she is a funny rose, not like the others—almost dank: musky, cold cave. And so I lean to find another but then I decide to stick with her, to dig nose in deeper. I smell an old tool shed, a mossy oak branch under slick wet leaves, a bouquet I was a breath away from missing. “You are beautiful” I tell her, so loud the children laugh but I don’t care.

I meander past trees and worker bees and find my sweet friend for our lunch at the park. We circle and square for the patch of sunlight we know we will find. A dragonfly flutters about and lands beside us. But then he’s off to cypress heights and I imagine for a moment the view of the park from the tree I see him settle upon.

Back home I listen to the sounds of aboriginal music and between songs I hear the high-pitched chirping chorus of the birds in my next door neighbor’s tree and I think, How easily I forget to listen. And I swear the sparrows are singing in harmony with the didgeridoos coming from my speakers, rising into crescendos just as the song reaches its refrain: “Keep your face to the sunshine and you will not see the shadow,” the singer says, and the birds suddenly… stop. And there is a dull ache in my ear saying all of this is not possible, that the bath water gets colder the moment you think it’s perfect, that the fragile strand that connects us is too fine a fabric for this cut-and-paste world.

But I can do nothing but choose this: the faith that we are all beacons along a path that in the end, is the sound of us rising.

And later in the day I walk along the river, and I see a dead fish decaying in the shallows. Just as I say “shoot” a live fish jumps airborne in front of me, five times thudding back into the river with the loudest splash of life. “Holy shit!” I say and smile and think: Exactly. Holy. Shit.

Berries

Rio loves berries, especially when we’ve picked them ourselves. In Bynum, there are two such treats: the mulberries that grow above my neighbor Ollie’s storage shed, and the blackberries that burst forth in prickly bunches along the river.

We know that summer is coming by the appearance of mulberries. In tune with Southern manners, we always wait for an invitation from Ollie before we climb the ladder. Rio still doesn’t quite understand why we can’t just ask him: “I know he’d say yes, so what’s the point in waiting for him to bring it up?” It’s hard to explain the intricacies of grace.

But once we get Ollie’s offer, we climb the rickety ladder and balance on the shed’s narrow and slanted roof, filing our bowls and delighting in the fact that we’ve been quicker and wilier than the raccoons and birds. Rio likes mixing half-ripe berries with fully ripe ones — that interplay of tart and sweet.

About six weeks later the blackberries turn their deep-violet hue. To get to the blackberries, we must navigate the poison ivy that always seems to weave itself through its sweet counterpart’s vines, their leaves remarkably similar.We’ve braved thorns, chiggers, and itchy rashes in the pursuit of the perfect purple orb. We know about several patches down by the river, a few behind the old mill, and a couple along the road, set far enough back that most people probably don’t notice them. Rio and I tell no one about our secret troves, not even Annie — we’re the private tenders of a wild orchard. The only hiccup was the one time when the public weed-clearing tractor used its long claw to rip some of our most productive bushes off the side of the road just as they were reaching peak sweetness. A year later, Rio will sometimes say, “I’m still mad at that driver. Those. Weren’t. Weeds!”

There’s something supremely satisfying about picking and tasting something you’ve watched grow. During the winter, Rio and I will look at the bereft bushes and say, “It’s hard to imagine that in a few months there will be ripe fruit hanging from there.” Come July, it almost feels like we worked for that berry — all those days of patient vigil.

As a kid, I’d spend every summer along with my sister at our grandparents’ house in Connecticut, where they kept a huge garden. My grandfather would plant, tend, and pick; my grandmother would jar, freeze, and cook. I grew up eating ears of corn for dinner that my grandfather had picked that very morning.

My sister and I would help around the garden as much as we could; we both loved riding my grandfather’s lawnmower, and we would also be conscripted to pick two crops in particular: green beans and blueberries. I still remember one bean or berry going into my pail for every two that I put in my mouth. To me, there was nothing finer than a crisp green bean snapping between my teeth. For the blueberries, we’d have to contend with the wasps and yellow jackets that crowded in with us beneath the cotton netting my grandparents had placed over the rows of bushes to keep out the crows. All that bending and dodging in the humid summer heat made the berries even more delicious.

My grandfather died a few years ago at the age of 98, and my grandmother lives in a nursing home. I still visit their house, though, because my aunt and uncle now live there. The garden is gone; a neatly trimmed lawn stands in its place. But those tiny, exploding moments of joy are still in me.