Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vernal Equinox Project: Day 56

Perchance to dream of green

If you ever wondered what kind of dreams might be summoned after a multi-course meal with half of a chocolate cream pie, hot green chile sauce with pork and flour tortillas drenched in melted butter (and washed down by copious amounts of coffee, beer and, as a delayed aperitif, white wine), I have an answer for you: bad.

And, possibly, illuminating.

In my defense, let me first state that my meals are normally spicy; adding a chocolate cream pie was—as a first course, no less—an anomaly brought about by the absence of my wife’s guiding hand. I was alone, I was stressed, it seemed a good idea at the time.

By midnight it seemed less a good idea. And shortly thereafter the Dark Man came.

He, or something like him, has haunted my nightmares for decades. Though the settings change, alternating from the dark streets of lower downtown Denver to deserted mine compounds in central New Mexico, the core has always been a mysterious figure lurking beyond the boundaries of sight. Or light, as is the case. The figure brings a crippling sense of dread and fear, almost supernatural in its malevolence. He has stalked me across three states and countless nights, and after my late-night three-course dinner he finally revealed himself.

It wasn’t a pleasant encounter. Though the location was sketchy, I remember being struck with a paralyzing coldness spreading through my body as I turned to see a figure standing in the middle of the street, a shape wreathed in a nimbus of black smoke that emphasized more than concealed his presence. Terror overwhelmed me. As my knees buckled, a winged creature swooped down and snatched me to safety.

Next time I skip the coffee, definitely.

As unsettling as the dream was, another has surfaced as a counterbalance. The latest is more of a waking dream, almost wishful thinking though with substance, and it was triggered not by an overabundance of mismatched foods but a visit to Miller’s Flowers and Greenhouses in Washington. Ostensibly I was there to write an article for the local newspaper. Freud, were he around, would undoubtedly discern underlying psychoanalytic causes, all of which hinged on the long cold winter of 2009-2010.

A raw wind sharp as razors flayed exposed skin on the afternoon I dropped by. Trees were barren, their limbs reaching in supplication toward the relentlessly gray sky. The land had gone gray and featureless, and an early dusk was clamping down, but once inside the door a scent of blossoms hung heavy in the air, almost cloying in its potency. And beneath it something else, something familiar if not elusive.

Gene Miller, who with his wife, Midge, owns the business, gave me the grand tour. I was expecting an interview and not what came next: the haunting smell of fresh dirt, potting soil, humid air and a chlorophyllous freshness wafting off rows of green shoots, some of which sported gaudy red and pink blooms.

If the hues and textures were shocking to a color-deprived winter captive, they were nothing compared to the memories they invoked, of gardening under a warm golden sun, emerald lawns sprinkled with dandelions and spreading carpets of delicate purple mustards, the smell of rich raw earth seething with nightcrawlers, even the crisp paper sleeves of seed packets and the dry rustling of multitudes of embryonic promises. And then I saw the tomato plants.

There were only a dozen or so, each about five inches tall, of a variety new to the store. As Gene described it, the plant grows up and out before spilling into long entwined vines studded with grape tomatoes. His imagery was more vivid than he could know, for in the space of a heartbeat my salivary glands exploded with the tart acidic flavor of tomatoes I have known, from tiny cherry varieties to romas, Brandywines, Early Boys and exotics, each with its own unique shape, color and taste. His words fell away and I stood in my garden with a trowel in hand. It was spring and birds were singing and the south breeze redolent of Gulf moisture and the coming summer, and winter was banished to a place beyond our interior world where the imagined is more real than reality, where woods are shaded and gardens heavy with fruit and the Dark Man has no place.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vernal Equinox Project: Day 53

Threw out the back, caught a nasty cold, time for a heating pad, a cup of coffee and some reading material.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vernal Equinox Project: Day 49

This given day

All morning I felt sullen and morose, bereft of words but not of the terrible urge to put something down, anything, no matter how trite or insipid, knowing from experience that one thing leads to another, like an opened faucet unleashes a flood. Reading Jim Harrison helps but when that too failed to spark any creativity or insight I switched gears to another concern, that of photography and my Vernal Equinox Project. What I would photograph today—the central query launched with each dawn—swiftly met the same fate as writing. Maybe I was all used up, I thought, or needed a break on some remote island with warm tropical breezes and the lulling whisper of tides lapping sandy shores, or even a remote cabin with no distractions other than views of distant mountain ranges. As if that could happen in this lifetime.

A close friend who has evolved into what he considers an intellectually spiritual mystic and what I call a New Age evangelical had been hammering me to open up to the “spirits.” He himself had done so and now they eagerly flocked to his bidding whenever he sat in his author’s seat to conjure words from the ether. “You need a muse,” he cajoled, to which I snapped, “I had a muse, and she died.”

After the exchange which was a conversation-breaker of the first order I followed my wife to the bedroom where we collapsed in a heap. What transpired next was a sort of twilit dreamscape that left me wandering through fields dark with soot and stunted with misshapen vegetation, surely the inner sanctum gone to ruin as my creativity had apparently tanked. Not even in sleep could there be refuge.

When I awoke it was late afternoon and the sun was westering. If there was anything to be done to resurrect the day it had to be now, so I kissed Lori goodbye and rushed out the door. Already the sun was sinking into clouds rolling in from the Rockies and the light had washed out to a wan glow. Rather than walking I drove the car the two blocks to the edge of town and parked and grabbed the camera and headed out across the stubbled field, snow underfoot crusted with ice and a rising wind like razors. My objective was the old Musil barn and one true image that would mark my day as something extraordinary. For the next half hour I worked my camera until the sun disappeared and I’d lost all feeling in my fingers.

When I pulled into the driveway the pallid heap of stones marking Mr. Bun’s cairn seemed to swim out of the gloom, while off to the side a deeper darkness beckoned where Sheba’s grave remained unmarked save for two small stones. The emptiness stood as a reproach that frankly mystified me. For months I’d deluded myself with the idea that she wasn’t really gone, that her presence was alive and well in the wild rabbits that emerged each evening, but now all I could hear was the echo of my words to my friend and feel in my hands the memory of her life departing even as her heart ceased its finite beating. So the task was unfinished, and here was the confrontation.

The timing could hardly have been worse but then bad news rarely schedules an appointment. As I downloaded the photographs onto my computer I thought about stones and the work involved to erect a cairn and also of the poison oak that had spread throughout the area of her grave that needed to be eradicated. It might be hypocritical to feel that way but my willingness to let nature take its course goes only so far. Last week I actually cut down a mulberry that was growing too close to the driveway, an act I at first felt wretched about but then quickly chalked up as a necessity. Coming from the desert as I do gives me perhaps a deeper appreciation for greenery than the average northeast Kansas native, and anyway I’ve allowed an entire thicket to thrive where no tree had ever sank root. If numbers were to be tallied for the ledger then I was ahead on all counts.

My mind wandered as it tends to do and ended up in a place of absolute weirdness: the pet cemetery at Fort Riley. My one and only visit was marked with a mixture of sadness and pity over the extremes people extend to memorialize their companion animals. That I am potentially guilty of the same doesn’t escape me. But as my companion and I wandered through the headstones, me keeping an eye out for migrating warblers and vireos, several markers stood out in their excess. Possibly the most egregious stated in block letters, “Dog spelled backward is G-d.” Discovering oblique references to Talmudic mysticism in such a setting was bizarre enough that we soon packed up and left. I’ve always wondered what inferences the dog’s owner was making and whether there could be a smidgen of truth to it. If so, I’m in trouble for I’ve always disliked canines of any stripe.

The answer of what to do about a marker for Sheba’s grave was not long in coming. Lori convinced me to attend a meeting at a friend’s house where I glanced around with an eye toward images for my project. Leaning on an old whitewashed picket fence out the back window was an ancient Schwinn bicycle, electric blue (Chinese blue, actually, I was to learn from a local expert), its flat tires buried in sycamore leaves. The homeowner registered my interest and said I could have the bike if I wanted.

“We don’t have a place for it,” Lori said.

“We’ll take it,” I added.

Two days later I hauled it home. A fierce wind raked from the north, snowflakes stinging like pellets, a glacial and miserable day that reminded me of the morning we laid Sheba to rest. I propped the bike against the two stones and made sure it wouldn’t topple.

“It’s not much, girl,” I said. And suddenly I felt lighter than air, almost transparent, buffeted by winds from the far side of the moon and as cold and sterile, my words torn from my lips and whisked away to forever imbue the fields and forests and the frigid blue steel of a manmade monument. Grief is love in another form, I thought, but given the chance the two can merge into remembrance and absolution. I said a few other things but the dead hear with different ears and the words didn’t matter anyway.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010