Big things have been happening this summer in my neck of the woods. In addition to the gigantic new house erected on top of Fred’s garden across the street1, our neighborhood park is undergoing a huge transformation that will take the next several months to bring to fruition. Our familiar, beloved landscape is less and less recognizable as the pond is transformed into waterfowl-friendly wetland and the stream is rerouted. Also, the big-kids’ playground is temporarily gone and will be relocated to another part of the park and there’s a new basketball court though it isn’t open for access yet. The route that Happy-the-dog and I usually walk and run has been halved in size and there’s only one bridge across the river that’s still open. I feel a bit disoriented now when I’m in the park. In between me and the water-fowl are six-foot-tall cyclone fences. There’s equipment and materials strewn about (though I rarely actually see persons working in the park) and I haven’t seen some of my old park-friends – Dave, Peggy — for several weeks. Maybe they feel as disconcerted as I do and have found new places to walk.
If all of this wasn’t enough to disrupt a gero-punk’s sense of routine and order, guess what else? Three weeks ago to the day, I sold our 12-year-old used Mitsubishi Montero, which was rapidly burning through its 9th and last life, for $100 and, thanks to a bit of good fortune (a combination of borrowed and gifted funds), I bought a used Toyota Prius! That’s the good news. The other news is that out of the twenty-one days since obtaining said Prius, I have actually possessed and thus driven the cool new-to-me car a total of – and I’m being generous — five days. The possessor and driver of said car for the remaining sixteen days is – you guessed it! — My 17-year-old daughter Isobel. It makes sense, actually, that Izzy would use the car more than I do right now. After all, I’m working from home most days this month on writing projects and she’s babysitting, doing an internship, and enjoying her first summer romance. Please don’t misunderstand–I’m not complaining, just reporting.
If when I return to school in the autumn I am asked to write a report about what I did during my summer “vacation,” the main theme I will explore in my report will be transition. This summer is the summer of Big Transitions.
Because of the temporary though disruptive situation with the park and because I am for all intents and purposes for the time being left to my legs for transportation, I’ve been walking a lot. I come from walkers on my mommy’s side of the family. My maternal grandparents were famous walkers, and so is my mommy (and recently, my brother Jeremy is, too). By “famous,” I mean that they walk(ed) for pleasure, exercise and transportation at least once if not more times virtually every singe day of the year, for almost their entire travels through the life-course. And they dress(ed) for walking no matter the occasion – sensible shoes, comfortable clothes, maybe a hat, and certainly a nap-sack. As I said, I’ve always been a walker, too, but this summer I’ve been walking more than usual (for example, today I walked almost two hours total) and, what’s more, I’ve been walking new routes. An unexpected result is that I’ve rediscovered my sweet neighborhood.
This morning, Happy and I walked through the half of the park still open for business, and then we headed west uphill on Bybee Street into Sellwood proper, then south through the neighborhood.
I saw this gorgeous fig lying on its side in the gutter, only partially eaten by a bird. I was deeply offended! Why steal a fig only to discard it? I looked around for the specific tree from which the fig was plucked. Ah—there it was! I pretended to be a bird and quickly plucked two figs from the glorious tree (not as small as my fig tree is, not as big as Fred’s fig tree had been). I gobbled one fig and carefully placed the second one in the palm of my left hand to carry home.
I eavesdropped on chattering creatures – humans and birds and dogs – and I peeked into gardens and yards, making mental notes about plants and landscapes and colors and smells I might like to replicate in my own yard. I pondered whether there’s a difference between being aware and present to the world and eavesdropping and peeking.
As I ambled along with Happy, I remembered the small, old Asian woman at the train station this past Sunday when I was waiting for my mommy to return from her trip to Seattle to visit my brother Jeremy. The woman had a curious manner of pacing back and forth the length of the large waiting area: hands clasped behind her lower back, bright eyes scanning the room, and a strange gait which involved with each step picking up her foot as if to clear it over the top of small plant or animal. For half a block I attempted to walk in this way. I felt like I was engaged in some strange combination of marching and stomping; when Happy veered suddenly to the right I almost toppled over. I wondered how the woman had come to this style of walking, whether she’d been walking this way her entire life or perhaps had assumed this approach more recently in her later years. It didn’t work so well for me, probably because rather than clasping my hands behind my back my left hand held the fig and my right hand held Happy’s leash.
A few blocks from home, after we’d turned left and headed east, I decided to cut a long south-eastern diagonal path toward my street. I hadn’t consciously planned it, but at the end of my trajectory was the neighborhood poetry post. Happy and I stopped so I could read the currently featured poem. As if I needed any further confirmation of how completely splendid and magical this life is, there on the poetry post was the perfect poem to celebrate my walk through the neighborhood, and, perhaps, this entire summer.
The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver2
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
By the time I reached the poem’s last question, I felt certain that Mary Oliver had been waiting there on the corner of S.E. Bidwell Street and 16th Avenue for Happy and me to happen by so she could commiserate and celebrate with us each of this summer’s Big Transitions (there are more that I haven’t even told you about!). I bowed to the post – and to Mary Oliver — and then Happy and I headed downhill and eastward for home.
I watched a male mail carrier as he carefully shooed away a huge moth perched on the latch of the gate through which he (the human) needed to pass in order to leave the yard in front of the house where he had just delivered magazines and bills. I appreciated how carefully and respectfully the mail carrier interacted with the moth.
I watched squirrel skitter across the power line and I anticipated the taste of the fig in my left hand but resolved to offer it to Isobel. I tripped on the curb as I stepped down onto 17th avenue to cross the street. I giggled and rejoiced.
I know what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life.
1For more about Fred’s Figs, see the three-part series published earlier this month
2From New and Selected Poems, 1992, Beacon Press, Boston, MA
“I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.”
— Norman MacCaig. “Summer Farm”, is I think the name of the poem? I always wonder if MacCaig and Oliver read each other, and if so, which came first: their grasshoppers seem so closely related — wild, complicated, beautiful, alien voyagers.
Lovely. Just lovely. I sit on this hot summer night trying to write. As always you make it seem so easy.