To Air

“Hey, let’s try something.”  We’re standing in warm waist deep water a few feet from the shore of Flathead lake in mid-July.   “Grab a rock and we’ll see how far we can carry it under water.”   It’s a part of the lake I know well.  The lake bottom tips away from shore at a pretty steep angle, and the bottom is all rock.  Close to the shore the rocks are small and there are gravel beaches.  As the lake bottom recedes from view, the rocks become boulders, and then a few hundred feet out, the lake bottom falls away in what becomes a steep drop off.

We search around for a while and find some rocks that seem large enough to hold a person to the lake bottom, but not so large that they’d be too heavy to carry.  We take deep breaths and on a count of three, we go.  Now, my dear friend is in good athletic condition.  He’ll outlast anyone I’ve ever met skiing up the side of a mountain.  But water is my superpower.  I’ve always been a better than average swimmer, but I had no idea I’d be so good at this task.

It’s an utterly useless thing, carrying a heavy rock underwater for relatively long distances.  Somewhere in my periphery, I sense that my friend has bailed for the surface.  I have much farther to go.  In this case, the bottom walk takes me out to the very edge of the drop-off.  I have to clear my ears several times on the way.  I’m not walking upright.  I’m bent over, one arm cradling my rock like a football, the other brushing from rock to rock, balancing as I bound from one boulder to the other.  

I reach the drop-off ahead, a green black engulfment.  Lungs finally out of gas, I hurl the rock over the edge, blockading thoughts of lurking abyss terrors from my mind as I push for the surface.  It’s dark.  I realize that the darkness means depth, and that the surface must be very far away.  Looking up, I can see the surface, a wrinkled mess, much farther above me than I would have guessed.  I’m a hundred yards or more from the shore.  I push and kick, the little orb of sun reflected and twisting in the bedraggled blue sky above the water’s surface.  I push to that thin membrane. To light. To warmth. To air.  To air.  

I visited my dad today at the nursing home where he’s being taken care of.  It’s a nice place.  The staff is friendly.  His room is lovely.  Lots of natural light.  At this point, there isn’t much that can be done for him other than to keep him as comfortable as possible.  His speech has diminished to a whisper.  His gait is halting, and we’re not far off from a wheelchair.  His cheeks are gaunt and pale as the staff valiantly struggles to keep weight on him.  

Visits are a little touch and go.  It wasn’t but a few days ago that when I visited with my mom, Dad very firmly, in his quiet way, told us in no uncertain terms, “your work has been good, and we’re grateful, but now it’s time for you to go.”  He wouldn’t talk to us or acknowledge us in any way.  We just had to turn around and leave.  It was very hard on my mother.  But that’s just where he’s at.  Some days he knows who we are.  Sometimes he doesn’t.  Some days we show up and he’s just asleep, and we turn around and come back another day.  

We’ve learned that our visits are actually more about us and our desire to honor him than they are about what he might want or need.  Our visits make very few ripples in the miasma of his days and nights.  We try.  We rub his shoulders until he tells us to stop.  We talk with him about children and work and pruning fruit trees.  He mutters about circles in the floor that are running out of money.  We help him to the bathroom.  He is in a different land, fighting a different battle.  There are no familiar patterns now.  There are no more PT exercises.  There are no more doctors appointments.  There isn’t anything the neurologist can do.  There are no more stories to be told.  There isn’t a shared frame of reference what-so-ever.  Sometimes I believe that understanding my father’s perception of his universe is like trying to understand how an extraterrestrial might perceive the world.  

We moved him to the home the first week of February.  For many good and understandable reasons, he hasn’t been outside the facility since that time.  But the home does have a pretty nice rear patio area and a couple hundred of feet of lovely sidewalk.  It was sixty and sunny today.  It’s been a week since the snow disappeared from shady spots.  The air is clean and crisp.  The halls of the nursing home are a dark and unintelligible line of closed doors.  And I know it wasn’t something asked for.  I know it wasn’t something that my father necessarily needed.  I know his ability to walk has diminished to the point where a few hundred feet of shuffling will wear him out.  But at the end of the hallway is a point of light, a portal to air.  To air.

I couldn’t resist pushing toward that small square of light and air.  I was in luck.  Dad was feeling relatively good when I showed up and was game for getting out of bed.  Once up, I carefully led him down the hall.  Brighter and brighter came the door’s rectangle window leading to the patio.  To air, dear father, to air.  We stepped over the threshold and the weak Spring sun fell on our faces.  It was warm and sweet – not too hot, not too cold.  We shuffled until we found a pair of sturdy deck chairs.  We sat and faced the sun.  

My father closed his eyes and for a moment in the pale raking of light, I could believe we were sharing something – the warmth of nine-minute-old photons.  We sat, silently.  A moment passed and then another.  Then my father squinted at me and said in his breathy, quiet voice, “I think it’s time to go inside.”  

Inwardly, I smiled wryly at my overly poetic and ultimately misguided nobility, my desire, still, to find a way to bridge the gap into what I imagine is the swirling chaos of his consciousness.  It’s hard to realize that there isn’t a way into the world he inhabits now.  There will be no further connection.  There is no universal translator.  Nothing about it will make sense.  If our presence is comforting, that is good.  If our presence isn’t comforting, we should leave.  There isn’t a shimmering membrane reflecting the sun past which we can breathe again.  

I took his hand and we carefully stood and shuffled back inside.

Look Up

Building things is an exquisite joy.  There is something timeless about nails, but I prefer to bring two elements together with screws.  It was a hot late summer afternoon in an unnaturally cool basement wood-shop on the University of Montana campus where the remarkable and dauntless Professor Bonjorni instructed a dozen green as hell painting students – of which I was one – in the art of creating a sturdy canvas.  “Nails,” she said, “attach.  Screws join.”  I’ve never forgotten this lesson.  Over the course of my life I will likely have spent several thousand dollars paying for screws where nails could have been sufficient.  I will regret none of those dollars spent.  But building things is a pleasure of the earth and soil, muscle and toil.  Creating form by attaching two lengths of wood together is the province of the kingdom of humans.  

Pruning fruit trees requires wading at the shores of heaven. Go outside.  Build a fire.  Look up into the sky at the thousand, thousand points of light.  Name the shapes you see.  Now you are ready to prune a fruit tree.

Symmetry demands that fruit trees be pruned after the worst of winter but before the sap runs.  Now is that time.  I have the extreme pleasure of pruning my own fruit trees, those at my parents home, and with extreme gratitude, I have been pruning fruit trees as part of my work.  There’s almost no work I’d rather perform.  

In my back yard I am blessed with two magnificent cherry trees.  They rise majestically from the side of my short hill.  I bought this house in June of 2020, and so there was nothing to be done other than watch their overgrown visages bear what fruit they could.  I dutifully mulched their base.  I watered them.  We ate a few bowls of cherries.  The ravens got most of the fruit. 

A tree, like my cherries, that hasn’t been pruned in many years will sag under the weight of its own growth.  The path forward will be long and have many turns.  This is the first of the magical aspects of pruning fruit trees.  You can’t always accomplish everything in one season.  If you cut all the things that need to be cut, the tree will be stressed.  Stressed trees are susceptible to disease and rot.  To begin the long road to health, the first necessary step is to realize that the road will be long.  Plan for a future after that first pruning which includes the warmth of summer, the cold of winter, a spring of another judicious pruning, another summer, another winter, and then, maybe in the third spring before the sap runs again, maybe the tree will be in a shape that can persist with only yearly general maintenance.

Begin with the shape.  Trees want to grow up.  They reach for the warmth of their patron, the sun.  Bearing healthy, rich fruit means growing outward – horizontal to the ground they are rooted in.  The second lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one is not taking away branches, one is guiding energy.  The fruit tree has only so much energy to give over the course of a warm season, and so that energy must be shepherded carefully, and with intention.  Take away branches that will shade nearby neighbors.  Take away branches that grow with too much enthusiasm toward the stars.  Take away branches that would cross and crowd their brothers and sisters.  Take away branches that duplicate the effort of others.  Remove broken branches – they are vectors for pathogens.  Encourage strength – the strongest branches will support the most fruit.  Don’t think about what branches are good and which are bad.  Decide where the energy should go, and act accordingly.

The third lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one must not think of wood and bark how they are now.  A projection must be made of each branch and bud – into the future, sure, but it’s better to project the path of growth.  How will this bud grow?  What branch will it turn into?  Is its path one of harmony or burden?  Will action or inaction be the most helpful?  It is an exercise in having faith.  Trusting oneself.  Be willing to risk mistakes.  Make mistakes.  The tree will tell you when you’ve fucked up.  It’s okay to fuck up.

This is lesson four.  It’s okay to fuck up.  There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree.  There cannot be. Heaven’s landscape is crowded with imperfections. We are all subject to the whims of chaos.  This isn’t hyperbole.  Chaos is the natural result of natural systems.  It’s why we cannot predict the weather more than a few days out.  It’s why in one moment the cloud looks like a dinosaur.  In the next, it looks like a lighthouse.  Apologies to twentieth century Modernists, but you cannot, you simply cannot, capture or reflect anything permanent and true.  There is only change and chaos.  Fruit trees teach us this.  The beauty is that there isn’t a right path.  There are only paths.  If you ask ten skilled arborists to prune the same tree it would look completely different in each iteration.  And they would likely all be sufficient or even good.  There is a deep and enormous well of grace lurking there.  Choices are made with right intention.  Outcomes are accepted and looked on over the course of time with discrimination and choices will be made again with right intention.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  The harmony is not in the outcome.  There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree.  

Harmony is found in the repeated iteration of discernment and action.  

An angry platoon of masters theses could arise from this comment as it relates to contemporary Western culture, but I am too old and too tired to beat that drum.  There are too many private battles to be fought and personal victories to be reached for.  Go outside.  Make a fire.  Sharpen clippers.  Find a pair of old leather gloves.  Requisition a ladder.  Ask the tree what it needs – where its energy should be directed.  Look up.  Stare into the heavens and name the shapes made by the thousand, thousand points of light.  

My cherries in full bloom.

A Future Yet Unwritten

My cat Baby Boy is the best cat in the whole wide world.  He’s huge.  He’s soft and fuzzy.  His tummy, as is often noted, is the softest thing in the universe. He nuzzles and cuddles just how a person would want to be cuddled – with passion and deep affection.  His purr could rock a baby to sleep.  He is an evolutionary marvel and a stone cold killer.

He is exceptionally good at killing things.  He has his own hashtag regarding this talent – #justfacesandspleens.  Whether for love or for just the pure artistry of it, he routinely curates the bits and pieces of his prey into delicately displayed entrail arrangements.  When it’s a vole, he’ll typically leave just the horribly buck-toothed upper jaw and spleen behind.  Hence the hashtag.  

But this cat is far more than a mouser.  At dinner one evening several years ago, we watched in fascination as Baby Boy came in from the field dragging something as large as himself.  The words, “what is that . . .” had just left my mouth when we realized that he was schlepping  a large male pheasant.  The next words that came to mind were, “what’s he going to do with that . . .?”  The question no sooner left my tongue when the answer came:  he would sit down and methodically devour it.  It was truly a sight to behold.

Something I’m fascinated by is his blithe disregard for any moral matters of life and death.  As an apex predator, I suppose he is preconditioned not to think about whether living or dying has any meaning.  If you have sharp teeth and claws and an appetite for baby rabbits, well, then . . .  I’m reminded of the line of a poem by DH Lawrence used to such great effect in the movie GI JaneI never saw a wild thing sorry for itself…

But I can’t help thinking about those baby rabbits.  

Recently, at dinner, the topic of death came up.  It happened in the way that conversations with tweens often does.  “If you had one hour to live, what would you do?” asks the youngest.  Geez only an hour?  “You can’t really knock anything off your bucket list in an hour,” I reply.  “Watch Star Trek?”  Try again.  “Go swimming in the lake if it’s summer?”  

“It’s winter, Dad.”  The youngest has such a deadpan sometimes.  We went around the table in a chaotic call and response.  Other permutations arose.  What if it was one day?  One week?  Invariably this kind of conversation ends in giant pre-teen eye-rolling when I pull out a quote by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Mary Oliver.  This night it was Dylan:  “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”  

Daaadddd…!!!  [Eye roll, eye roll, eye roll]

I will never understand the resistance my children have to attempts to bring a little cultural knowledge to their otherwise Tower Defense saturated existences.  The conversation eventually rolls around to the various genetic propensities of my children’s ancestors.  On their mom’s side there are some pretty resilient male descendants.  From me, however, their genetics spell different, shorter, life-spans.  My paternal grandfather died in his mid-seventies from cancer, and, it was noted, my own father probably won’t make it to his mid-seventies.  

This tripped me up in a throat-closing kind of way.  I was fourteen when my maternal grandfather died – the same age as my oldest.  I didn’t know him very well.  I did know he was one tough bugger.  He survived a major heart attack, half a lung removed from cancer, and the loss of one of his legs to gangrene.  

When he lost his leg, he and my grandmother had to move to an apartment in town.  It was just down the street from our house.  I don’t have many memories of them from the time before they lived in that little apartment complex.  Our family developed a ritual around my grandparents, and if I knew them at all, it’s because of this ritual.  

Every Friday around five, whoever happened to be available would drop by for “happy hour.”  Drinks would be served.  High-balls for adults, cokes and icecream bars for kids.  As a pre-driving aged kid, I didn’t have much choice about whether I would attend these gatherings, but I always liked them.  Sometimes my uncle Larry and aunt Bernie would stop by with one of their kids – my much older cousins.  Sometimes my cousin Randy or his father Denny would drop in.  These were the people my grandfather spent the second half of the twentieth century farming with.  There was a familiar yellow glow to the lamplight in the small apartment, and many very loud voices.  My grandfather was also very hard of hearing.  

Grandpa Chuck would get a drink, which he wasn’t supposed to have, and then he’d cajole one of the visitors to make him up another.  There was a candy dish.  It was lovely.  By the time I was old enough to form coherent memories that included context, Grandpa Chuck was old in a way that made it impossible for me to understand him.  My cousin Randy tells the story of when my grandfather bought a brand new truck (1979) and let him drive it to high school sometimes.  He reports loving the feeling of being behind the wheel of that brand new vehicle, that he was pretty hot shit behind the wheel of that thing.  

I knew that truck well.  Like my brother before me, I learned to drive on it.  The final driving test for my brother and I was not parallel parking, it was – can you get down the hill at the lake and back up it in the truck.  Prefer parallel parking.  It was definitively not hot shit.  It was the kind of truck that if you hit something with it (like, hypothetically, the concrete posts that protect the corners of gas stations) and all the doors still close, you didn’t have it fixed.  I’m relatively certain the title listed the color of the vehicle as ‘baby shit brown,’ and while my brother and I loved that truck, it was a beat up piece of crap when I got to it, and the man who’d bought it was many years gone.

Which has me wondering what my children will take away from knowing grandpa Steve?  I looked at my oldest and say, “You’ll probably know Grandpa Steve about as well as I knew Grandpa Chuck.”  This seems to catch him off guard a little because he doesn’t have a ready reply for such a statement.  He can’t know what my experience was, but I catch a glimmer – just a glimmer – of knowing how much life could potentially be in front of him (may he live a long and glorious life!), and how relatively nascent his experiences have been so far.  

It takes a great deal to impart even a little perspective to a fourteen-year-old, and while part of me would keep them innocent and unknowing about the world for as long as possible, the better part of me is glad to see the dots connect behind my son’s eyes.  Ancestors.  Family.  Legacy.  Youth.  Time.  The increasingly gaunt figure of a grandfather.  Most importantly:  A future yet unwritten.       

What’s left of the old brown truck. In a place of honor.

Parallel Moments

When I was twenty, I lived in a house in Missoula that had a claw foot bathtub that fit all of me.  My time there was short, and I didn’t take advantage of that bathtub as much as I should have, but I learned it was possible to have a bath that doesn’t suck.  There’s power in that knowledge.  

The problem is, there’s a lot of me.  Scalding hot water doesn’t matter when it only covers 32% of your body.  I spent the next twenty years without such a bathtub.  With something more than hope, perhaps, I would say to myself, someday, I will own a bathtub that fits all of me.

I now own such a bathtub.  

It took an enormous amount of loss, an incredible amount of serendipity, the generosity of both those I love and a stranger, a plague, dementia, the good advice of a friend, a particularly special sleepless night, and a whole bunch of hard work to make it happen.  I don’t know for sure if we manifest that which we believe can become true or if the universe is random, but when I think about this bathtub, it feels a whole lot like the former.  That I would someday own a bathtub large enough for all of me was something I believed to be true.  It wasn’t a wish or desire. 

After a generation’s time-span of showers, I take anywhere from three to five baths a week now.  It is an entirely baroque experience, and no doubt is contributing to the demise of the planet.  Sometimes I imagine that the vegan years I spent living in an East-coast city not owning a car offsets this indulgence, but that’s bogus.  I know.  It’s bogus.  I do it anyway.  Apologies to future generations.  Sorry . . . not sorry.

I wipe the tub down – a clean bath is essential – then I plug the drain and open only the hot tap.  I let the water run.  It takes some time to fill, so if I’m not in the room, I can tell when I’m close because the sound of water flowing into the tub changes dramatically when the level of the rising water overtakes the faucet inlet.  

The water is cold when it starts flowing in.  Then, it transitions to as hot as my water heater can manage.  The entire tank empties into the tub.  Then, the water coming out of the faucet turns cold again.  The perfect temperature is achieved at one centimeter above the faucet.  Counter-intuitively, stopping too soon will make the bath too hot.  Stopping later will make the bath too cold.  I have tape covering the overflow valve, so I know that when it’s at the right temperature, and I’ve fully immersed my very-large self, the water level will be about three inches below the top of the tub.  No sudden movements.  I add some Epsom salts, then I turn on a podcast and soak.  

My absolute go-to podcast is RadioLab.  Their mission, it seems, is to plumb the depths of wonder.  Which is just my speed.  Tonight’s episode is, in fact, about Speed.  It’s a repeat – roughly ten years old.  The episode contains several stories, which are interesting, but the last of the bunch is probably a top five story.  It’s up there alongside the story about the shrimp who can punch its claw so fast it breaks the sound barrier to stun its prey.  It’s right next to the episode where they interview astronomer Brian Greene about the idea of the multi-verse.  This interview ranks alongside the one where they describe what the end of the dinosaurs would really have looked like.  It’s a killer story.

It’s a story about a scientist who can create a sodium cloud ever so carefully, such that the sodium atoms slow down to near absolute zero.  She can manipulate the cloud so that when she shines a laser at it, the light passing through this insanely hyper-cold space slows way, way down.  It moves around 15 miles per hour – about bike-riding speed.  It’s a cool episode.  They talk back and forth with ooohs and aaahs as this scientist unloads one amazing revelation after another.  It turns out, with a few tweaks, she can literally freeze light in place.  Light frozen in place.  Even more preposterously, the scientist says she can use the way the light interacts with the sodium atoms to create an impression of the light, and then she can recreate that light so exactly that it is, in every meaningful sense, the same light.  Then she can store that light, move it around.  She can transport light.  There is a human alive who can freeze and transport light from one place to another.  I find this incredibly moving.

I know exactly where I was when 9/11 went down.  I remember the circumstances of the world when each of my children were born.  I remember the weather outside when my maternal grandfather passed away.  I remember the quality of fluorescent light in empty high school hallways when I received my first kiss.  I remember what ordinary things my mother and I were doing the day my dad accidentally ran over the dog’s face.  The dog was a tire-chaser.  He had it coming. (He recovered.)

I distinctly remember where I was when I first heard this episode of RadioLab.  I remember the day, the time, the weather, what I was doing, all of it.  It occurred to me, in the bath, that this moment I was experiencing was like a kind of parallel moment in time.  I am here, in this time, toweling off after a skin-reddeningly hot bath.  I am driving in my Dodge Caravan back from Gina’s farm in the countryside of Southern Indiana.  

I am finishing a day of remodeling a new friend’s garage.  I am wet and cold and hungry, turning on the hot water faucet before I even set my car keys down.  I am alone in my house.  I am content in a way I haven’t been for decades.  Later, I will fix myself some chips and salsa and I will turn on an episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  

I am exhausted from a day of learning how to milk cows.  Gina is teaching me the ways of Jersey cows.  She is a bonafide dairy cow whisperer.  She understands these animals in a way I never will, though I will try.  I smell like manure.  I am surprised to find this isn’t necessarily a bad smell.  I am thinking about Gina’s big-hearted generosity.  She is tall and strong.  She is made for raising animals or political activism, which will be the focus she pivots to when her career as a boutique dairy farmer comes to an end.  

But I don’t know that yet.  My future parallel self knows.  In this moment, I am in the car, driving away from her farm, her six or seven dairy cows, her feral children, her rogue chickens.  Every chicken living is a rogue chicken.  I tune into the NPR station in that part of the country, so far south in Indiana that it is south of Louisville, Kentucky.  I am so happy to find that RadioLab is on.  

I am exhausted from a day of replacing windows, but thrilled that my new business is taking off.  I will be successful, I repeat to myself.  I deserve success, I say.  My talents will help people, I repeat.  I will broadcast my Sufjan Stevens channel on Pandora to my TV via airplay and start to write this essay.  I will open a bottle of the last batch of wine my father made before dementia made such things beyond his reach. 

I am trying to learn anything, anything at all that will help me start the farm that my then wife and I have decided to start.  I am sad to be leaving a teaching job I love, but it’s a job that doesn’t pay well and never will.  I am sad to be leaving friends I have come to love, but I am excited to have a reason to move back to where I’m from.  I am pulled in many directions.  

A few months later, while Gina is contemplating transitioning to a different life in town, we will build a farm on some family land in Montana.  We are poster-children for the meme that if you knew how hard something would be at the outset, you’d never start anything.  We have No Idea how hard starting an organic farm from scratch will be.  Our children will play in fields as we break against the giant waves of soil we will exhaust ourselves wrangling.  By many metrics it will be a success.  It will be a beautiful story to tell – perhaps one of these essays will tell it.  It will be a less beautiful story to live through.  

I am on the road.  The back of my mind watches a little spring rain fall on the windshield.  The voices of the hosts of RadioLab are safe.  They are always safe.  They will always reliably present me with a heaping pile of wonder.  So much of my life isn’t safe.  I’m leaving my job for something very insecure.  My children are very little.  There is something not right between my wife and I that I can’t put my finger on.  

But this moment is safe.  The past version of me isn’t self-aware enough to realize that feeling unsafe the way he does isn’t OK.  Alarm-bells should be ringing.  This episode of RadioLab feels like a refuge.  That life is a place needing refuge from isn’t OK.  It’s not sustainable.  Unsustainable things break.  There isn’t a way to avoid the losses coming.  He has so much fear of loss.  I wish the RadioLab story could be a conduit, that in this parallel moment I could reach out to him and say, it’s going to be OK.  

You can’t stop the loss that’s coming, I would say.  Loss isn’t the end.  It’s not a final judgment.  It will create the circumstances for rebirth, for You finally feeling like You.  Just wait, I would say.  Remember that bathtub?  Remember that one?  The next time you hear this RadioLab story, you will be soaking in THAT tub.   Your life won’t be perfect, you will carry many, many regrets.  But there will be so much to celebrate – so much wonder.  Your heart will be full to bursting, I will say.  

And it is.