I think the dead are tender. Shall we kiss? --
My lady laughs, delighting in what is.
If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue.
She makes space lonely with a lovely song.
She lilts a low soft language, and I hear
Down long sea-chambers of the inner ear.

We sing together; we sing mouth to mouth.
The garden is a river flowing south.
She cries out loud the soul's own secret joy;
She dances, and the ground bears her away.
She knows the speech of light, and makes it plain
A lively thing can come to life again.

I feel her presence in the common day,
In that slow dark that widens every eye.
She moves as water moves, and comes to me,
Stayed by what was, and pulled by what would be.

{Theodore Roethke}


Of Hedgerows and Husbandry

(This was written while in flight back to the U.S., and I've only just gotten around to posting it, hence the somewhat odd temporal placement of verb tenses and that sort of thing.)

In our travels of the past few weeks, Katrina and I have had the opportunity to observe numerous hedges and hedgerows (evidently there's a difference) scattered through southern England and along the border with Wales. There are many features of the English countryside that would appear alien to anyone familiar with American rural life (see also: public rights-of-way that cut directly up someone's driveway, within three feet of their house, and into their back pastures, through which one is perfectly entitled to walk without fear of being charged with trespassing), but the hedgerows are among the most immediately distinctive.

They close in over narrow lanes, making them seem even narrower, and provide both shade and protection from or obstruction of the winds and breezes. They act as fences and habitats, depending on the creature. And they are astonishingly complex, upon taking a closer look. Far from being an untidy jumble of plant life--although they can become that under certain circumstances--they are arranged according to a particular design and require maintenance and care to become what they are.

I was sufficiently intrigued by them to pick up a copy of English naturalist John Wright's A Natural History of the Hedgerow, which provides a much closer look than I've managed in one paragraph, and it's my airplane reading, en route back to the U.S., hence why I'm thinking about it right now, while pausing to write this.

One of the things I found interesting about them in a casual observation was the way that branches had been woven together and back in, trained to grow up, but not out, and forming a relatively impenetrable barrier. (Seeing it, I'm better able to make sense of a scene from Howl's Moving Castle, wherein Sophie Hatter frees a dog caught in the hedge - I don't think we typically have bushes thick enough to trap dogs here, but it's not hard to see how it might happen in some of the thicker bits of a stock-proof hedge.) Wright details numerous ways of laying hedges, some regional, some more attentive to the materials at hand, but they all involve some measure of skill and, perhaps most importantly, patience. It takes approximately ten years from the initial planting of trees before a hedge can be laid, and the hedge will have to be re-laid in successive decades if it is to be well-maintained.

I suppose I'm a little too irresistibly drawn to moralizing from these things, but I've been thinking about the kinds of processes that are involved in life maintenance. A life may be lived haphazardly, allowing each day to come and go without giving much thought to how it's being conducted or where it might be going. Or there may be a patient, ongoing work of care: establishing healthy patterns, practicing good communication, evaluating relationships and goals and activities.

I made a somewhat nonsensical comment earlier about hedges becoming what they are, and I think that's one of those odd constructions that gets to a more complex notion of what it means to be anything. I am human, and without any particular judgments on how other people choose to exercise their humanity, I might think that there are better and worse ways of being human. In both cases, the only way to get closer to the extremes is through purposive or neglectful repetition of specific behaviors and ways of interpreting or thinking about the world.

Hedgerow maintenance requires attention, care, knowledge, and wisdom to do it well - and repetition. You can't do it once and expect that all will be well forever thereafter, although a once-well-tended hedge may endure for a while before it starts to break down. The work that you're doing is to build toward something, certainly - there's a notion of what the thing ought to be, that you are shaping it toward - but the work itself is done in the present on the thing as it currently happens to be. You can't work with resources that aren't there. You also can't will a flourishing hedgerow into existence merely by wistfully contemplating what it could be. Again, the work happens now, with what there is.

Hopefully the connections between how one maintains a hedgerow and how one maintains a life are fairly obvious. If not, then I suppose I shall simply say that attention, habits, self-evaluation, and patience are all vital ingredients to the process of building a life. If my metaphor holds and if you happen to think, as I do, that the best kind of life provides some benefit to others as well as the self, then let me add this: that the strongest hedgerows also offer a vital habitat in which many species find food, shelter, and protection. And for those of us who enjoy observing both great lives and great hedgerows, they happen to supply an unending variety of interesting details that only become richer upon closer inspection and could preoccupy a happy nerd for a very long time.



Smoke signals and semaphore
Are the means I use to speak to you,
As though we stood, each of us,
Atop two distant mountain peaks,
Lonely watchers in a wasteland,
And attempted to break the spell
That deadens our dry tongues.
But what would we say if we said at all?
How do I transform the way a feather feels,
Brushing against the skin,
Into a language that will span the gap?

Perhaps if we managed
We’d find in fact that
The moment of connection
Left us lonelier than before.
When I imagined what I did not have,
I could not be bereft.
And now, if the silence falls,
And the words fail?
How shall I ever cross that hollow void
Within myself?


Getting What You Want

Once upon a time, I was twelve years old, using our free dial-up internet to look at Oxford and Cambridge’s websites, probably after reading about them in a novel. I tried to figure out how the college system worked and even had some preferences for which one I’d want to be in, but was attuned enough to my family’s circumstances to know (after a glance at the scholarship page) that I would probably never be able to afford that dream. It stuck around somewhere, but as I applied to various colleges and universities, I figured it wasn’t happening and that would be that.

It was only in the process of transferring from community college, as I checked out the study abroad catalog at Penn, that I realized there was actually a way to do it. It didn’t hurt that the program requirements were among the most stringent, at least as far GPA went, so I could satisfy my internal need to accomplish something meaningful if I did get in. Of course, as the four or five regular readers of this blog and myself already know, I eventually ended up going to Cambridge to study for six months and was deliriously happy even when I wasn’t (i.e. while smudging all of the underlines in my Abelard text with tears because I just could not understand what, precisely, I was supposed to be getting out of it after spending many hours on one or two paragraphs). I pointedly didn’t take pictures of many things, just so I’d have to spend time smelling, hearing, and seeing every detail into memories that would linger in greater potency.

I think that it’s unusual that we get precisely what we want. I say this as someone who has rarely formed more complex ambitions than “survive” and “don’t grow up to be like Mom,” but I think even for people who have a detailed notion of what they want and can aim themselves toward that, the results are never going to be exactly that, because there are too many other variables. It’s also possible that we may find out that what we think we want isn’t what we want at all.

There’s no terribly original thought behind this post. I just happened to be thinking about that experience in contrast with most of life, where I think the truer way to satisfaction is to follow the Innocent Smith model. Smith is the strange and wonderful hero of Chesterton’s novel Manalive. The title comes from a telegram he sent to an old school chum, and this with no context whatsoever: “Man found alive with two legs.”

It’s meant to be a sort of wondrous announcement, to wake others up to the marvel that Smith himself (and I do think Smith is meant to be a somewhat parodied but semi-autobiographical figure for Chesterton, if only because he writes elesewhere with such naive jubilation in apple trees bearing apples and sunrise happening every morning) has discovered.

In the course of the story, we find that Smith’s realization has led him to take some very unusual steps. For example, he is found to be a bigamist, romancing different women and then eloping with them, never mind that they all turn out, in the end, to have been his wife, sent off somewhere to work as a secretary or lady’s maid precisely so that he could then find her and make off with her. On another occasion, he is caught attempting burglary, breaking into a house via an attic window, but, after all, it’s only his own house that he’s breaking into.

What Smith is attempting is the quiet revolution (though maybe not so quiet in his case) of wanting what you get. The satisfaction of attaining a goal or dream is great and deep, no doubt about that. But there is a great deal that we cannot control or know, and if we mean to find delight in the less earthshaking moments, then contentment is far more consistently rewarding. That’s not to say that we should settle or stop dreaming; rather, as in all things, there’s a balance to be walked if we wish not merely to weather the “low” points between attainments, but rather thrive in them.


Hazel Dormice at the Devil’s Jumps

Let us go then, you and I, to walk over hill, over hill, to the steady tramp of tired feet, to the adventures sought by tired feet, let us go, let us go! The way unfolds before us like a serpent in its winding, the way stretches out before us like a carpet unrolled, the way falls before us and we feel as though to go another step forward would be to walk at last right into the sky—our breath caught and let go, released in the disappointment of knowing how close and yet—

Physics. If only I could calculate the variables, we might leave the ground, but it’s an impossible task, one that I can’t do alone, and you’re not interested, you’ve already moved on to some other distraction more interesting to you than the question of how we might fly through the clouds so I’m left grasping for rainbows when the sun has left for warmer parts and the rain falls thick and grey.

The first attempt: Somewhere between the hedgerows, I thought I spotted a grey fox. He winked at me, he climbed a tree, how could this be? A fox in a tree? That was the first impossible thing before breakfast, and I believed it because it was real, but full English breakfasts weigh heavy on one’s stomach, so my thought balloons were not enough to carry me away on the breezes that blew, achoo achoo, on the breezes that blew me away (from -?).

The second attempt: There was a kite, and quite a kite there was. His head was white, and his tail was red, and his wings were spread to fly, no to float, to drift yet stand still, he was quite remote, and I dreamed that I caught him with cobweb reins, but he would not be harnessed, not this kite (how he hovered!), he quickly recovered and broke the thin thread, so I gave up and said my farewells to the chap, I bade him the happiest riding the wind, abiding the while my fate on the ground.

The third attempt: a puff of breath was all that it took to mail a thousand dandelion seeds to a thousand destinations (or maybe just one), much to the chagrin of those who have no souls with which to pay homage to their cheerful yellow faces. I made those tufted sailors into Horcruxes with the murder of a slug on the path, a spider in the bath, and myriad other tiny creatures, too small to avoid when their way intersects mine. And so I go, I go, aloft shall I go, but the flight is with sorrow, I alight with sorrow, for the magic is heavy and my bones are hollow and you do not follow, not this, not the line of thought that led me here now, to the point at the end where I fly over the hilltops. Gone is the blossom, it was carried away.


Going Places

A year ago, maybe more, in the muddle of misery that was foreclosure law and the frustration of unanswered job applications, the need for an escape was more obvious. There were plenty of reasonably good things in the present moment, but I think we need goals and destinations to structure our actions from day-to-day, or we end up drifting. At least, that has been true for me. To get myself beyond that particular period and to give myself something to look forward and live forward to, I proposed a return to England.

It was a logical destination. I’ve always hated the idea that there might be a high point in one’s life that one could never really top, like people who peak in high school and spend the rest of their lives daydreaming about when they were captain of the football team, even as everything else about their adult life is deeply unfulfilling. It bothers me for two reasons: one, that I don’t like to think that there may be nothing better to be had out of the future, and two, that it’s simply impossible to recreate the conditions under which we may once have been incandescently happy. Perhaps three, and related to one, my life has generally trended upward, from a difficult, emotionally perplexing childhood to a differently difficult but somehow kinder adulthood, so I have historically felt that there were very few moments in my past that could feasibly be seen as an improvement on the present or possible future.

But all that aside, if you asked me when I’ve felt most perfectly at home, in alignment with my goals and hopes and temperament, I would have to say when I was studying at Cambridge. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest experience, but the positive far outweighed the negative, and the memories I formed quite deliberately have remained impressed in my mind with a strength rarely attained.

And yet, it has been four years. Memories, even strong ones, may fade a bit. I think I’m becoming less of a romantic, but I hope that’s a trade off for the better, if I may be a bit less naive as well. I’m not working at a job that is essentially awful - although somewhere Dan is wondering about the veracity of that statement, since I’ve been crying to him all week about how much work has been stressing me out. In short, my motivations for this particular trip that I’m taking are less clear to me and less immediate and urgent than they were when the whole plan was conceived.

I’m looking forward to spending two weeks with Katrina, and I’m happy to see Andy after seven years, and it will be pleasant, I think, to take after some of my favorite English (by birth or resettlement) authors in wandering long footpaths. I could certainly use the vacation after a rather long and occasionally exhausting  six months. But right now, on the eve of traveling, as I pause before plunging into  the last bits of packing, cleaning, cat petting, and so forth that must be done, I can’t help but feel as though some of my thoughts on travel, on the purpose of this particular trip, and on the general destination have changed.

I don’t need to escape. “Here” is rarely perfect, but after the first running of the gauntlet, I’ve had a fairly gentle time of it. I don’t particularly romanticize England anymore, I think, although as a lifelong Anglophile this may be a relative statement. I’m aware that it’s not a perfect place either, and whether I’d make the effort to move there, like I once hoped and strived to do, well, I don’t know. I suppose if the opportunity presented itself, although they rarely seem to be so promiscuous as to land in one’s lap. But it’s a comfort to know that after such a long time of feeling uprooted and misplaced, that perhaps there is a sort of home to be had here, for however long that might be.

Regardless, in less than 48 hours, I’ll be in hot pursuit of magpies and the best grilled cheese in the world. Fortunately, I think Katrina is already resigned to her fate, or this would be a very long trip indeed.