Words that heal

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

There once was a physician who had twin daughters. One grew up to become a psychiatrist. The other developed schizophrenia as an undergraduate. She poured out her anguish through words with pen on paper. Eventually, she became a published poet. Of the two daughters, which one was the healer?

In order to diagnose, a psychiatrist must learn to listen to the patient. Now there are many practicing psychiatrists who base their pharmacological treatments on symptoms alone. Medication regimens are adjusted based upon the patient’s response to the drug. Sometimes the dose is increased to enhance the effect of the drug; other times the drug is discontinued because of untoward side effects. Much of pharmacological treatment comes down to trial and error. Many times medication can help, but in the end a pill cannot heal a soul.

Freud, regarded by many as the father of psychiatry, once wrote: “Wherever I go, I find a poet has been there first.”

Throughout the centuries poets have pursued the art of crying out, of putting pen to paper (or stylus to papyrus), crafting words as conduits to transmit their anguish, their deepest longings, their joys, their sorrows. Many have written in part to help themselves to heal. When we read their words, we enter in to their anguish, their longings, their joy and their sorrow; and when we do, we ourselves may experience some degree of healing as well.

It doesn’t take a college degree to become a poet. One must only open oneself up to the suffering of the soul, to face one’s demons, to record the emotional truth of the spiritual state, to capture the passion (and in this instance I refer to the root meaning of that word: to suffer) in a few brief lines which may, if one is lucky, last for an eternity.

Wings of eagles

“I saw the eagles again today.”

I looked up from the plate of food resting before me on the dinner table. “Where?” I asked.

“They were gliding in the air overhead just this side of the mountain,” my wife said. “I was out for my morning walk when I looked up, and there they were.”

Individually, we had sighted eagles in the village over the course of the past year, but they had always been solitary birds, sometimes perched or soaring above the river. Earlier this month was the first time that my wife and I had seen two mature birds together in flight.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“They kept circling, then eventually they disappeared over the ridge.”

Quietly, I closed my eyes and watched them: circling, soaring, clockwise and counter-clockwise, currents of air pulsing through the tips of their long wings, white heads and tails glistening against the morning clouds.

Ever since I was a boy, I had always dreamed of seeing an eagle. I had studied plenty of pictures, emblems on the national shield, photographs on postage stamps, drawings in books on birds of prey.  I had watched native American dancers whirl about to the beat of drums, their headdresses adorned with eagles’ feathers twisting and turning in the air. Later, as a sojourner of sorts, I had kept a watchful eye over the course of my travels, always on the lookout, hoping one day to catch a glimpse of a mature eagle in flight.

Decades passed before I finally got the chance to see a one; and now here they were in pairs, soaring  above the small village that we have come to call home for nearly forty years.

Hope can bring us a long way.  Sometimes we wait years to witness our childhood dreams fulfilled. Perhaps hope requires a healthy measure of time to bring us to the point where we become capable of appreciating such gifts, long-awaited but yet unseen.

A short list

A bucket list can be long or short, simple or more intricate. Some bucket lists carry expensive price tags; others not so much.

The bucket list of a young boy is understandably different from that of an old man. Boys look up to contemporary heroes; old men tend to look back to boyhood heroes long gone. Who can say what wishes might wash through the mind of a young boy as he nears the end of his short life?

I know of such a lad who, weak and wounded, had voiced a burning desire to see the original Declaration of Independence. In his debilitated state a trip to Washington, D.C., wasn’t feasible; he could barely sit up in bed at home. But somehow the word went forth, contacts were made, officials were informed, with the upshot that the curator of the National Archives arranged to close the public exhibit for a short period of time, long enough to skype a private showing for this youngster lying in bed at home several states away.

I’m told that the curator himself had been handed a terminal diagnosis, although in his case it would be some time, certainly much more time than had been granted the young boy; but time resides in the moment, and one moment lived in the now is priceless compared to hours or days of dulled awareness.

The curator explained the history of the document to the boy: the discussions that formulated the radical ideas that underpinned it, the drafts done by Jefferson, the changes by Adams and Franklin, the appended signatures giving approval and consent. The camera focused on the text of the parchment itself, penned in Timothy Matlack’s fine hand, punctuated by John Hancock’s signature centered among the other fifty-five below.

I am not certain how long this private showing lasted: perhaps several minutes, perhaps half an hour, perhaps an eternity; but in the end the boy’s wish was granted, and an invisible check mark was placed next to the item on the short list, signifying its completion.

Christmas gifts

Christmas morning my wife took sick.

At the last minute we had to cancel our plans to host Christmas dinner. For the first time in forty years there would be no roast turkey with all the trimmings on the big table at the house.

I found the remnant of a loaf of crusty bread and hastily concocted a breakfast of french toast with a bit of bacon on the side.

My wife retreated to the bedroom upstairs while I cleared the kitchen table and did the dishes.

Afterward, I donned my padded vest, pulled on my woolen cap and stepped outside into the sharp cold winter sunshine. I ambled down the street to the center of town, then turned northwest to follow the road to the park.

Footsteps of previous visitors had iced up overnight. I found it easier to make my way through the crunchy snow along the margins of the path.

I skirted the frozen pond, blazing a trail through the brush under the bare towering trees at the far edge to the point where the two streams meet. The current had kept the water open in the center; great swaths of grey ice clung to the shoreline. Nothing moved in the quiet stillness: no winter bird, no air, no cloud in the sky.

Shortly, I turned and retraced my steps. Fifty yards further up along the bank I paused to survey the barren landscape. My eye glimpsed a grey shadow dart across the ice at my feet as a big bird dropped from its perch high overhead and floated over the dark open water.

A few powerful beats of its great black wings propelled the bird high above the river. Deftly, it dropped and circled, then climbed higher, then dropped again. With each pass overhead the brilliant white tail and white head flashed in the mid-morning sun.

Finally, the eagle turned and banked; then, with several more wing beats, it sailed off over the tops of the far trees.

***

This morning I thought to return to the point to see if I might catch another glimpse of the eagle.

Rather than make an approach through the town, I cut across the cemetery and picked up the trail along the river instead.

Several birds shifted in the trees on the far shore. One grey-blue form suggested a likely kingfisher, but I hadn’t brought my binoculars and couldn’t make a positive identification. Somewhere overhead a carpenter bird tapped out its coded message on a decayed limb.

As I stood there in the frozen snow, a small grey bird darted suddenly into the brush along the near bank and piped amidst the branches. Perhaps a sparrow, I thought; but no: this bird was uniformly grey.

Curiously, he flitted from branch to branch, seeking sustenance of some sort, finding nothing but a few lone winterberries, which seemingly held no interest.

Closer and closer he came, until finally he got to within several feet of where I stood.

Here he paused momentarily, bobbing nearly upside down on a fine twig; and eyed me briefly, revealing a bright yellow swath along the center of his crown: a little kinglet, meticulously surveying his vast winter wooded domain.

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Secular and sacred

“We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths.”  —Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

The snow that fell on Sunday night still blankets the landscape this Tuesday morning: a hard, crisp crust that crunches underfoot. Nature has changed her palette to blues and greys and whites with speckles of burnt orange and reds, remnants of winter-berries and bittersweet.

Cars and trucks of workers line the lane below the cemetery at Governor’s Bridge. Roofers mill about, trussed in safety harnesses, sucking morning cigarettes and sipping coffee to ward off the cold. Stacks of shingles rest nearby, waiting to be carted on broad shoulders aloft.

The path that runs along the riverbank has been blazed by boots and paws, frozen impressions now crisscrossed by tracks of rabbit, squirrel and fox. The pilings from the long gone railroad bridge stand sentinel like in the river, etched in white. Ice has formed in grey sheets along the banks, framing the smooth open water as though it were a full length mirror reflecting the blue sky overhead.

Just below the great bend in the river a kingfisher chatters, drops from a bleached branch and disappears downstream.

The pond in the park is frozen. Cracks have formed in the blue-grey ice: dendrites of neurons search for synapses among the shadows.

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A lone Canada goose bleats as it drifts down with the current above the rocky remnants of the old sluice.

On the road up ahead hard-hatted men huddle in small groups below a line of towering maples. Overhead a chainsaw buzzes in spurts; lithe branches drop and splinter as they strike the ground.

“Move along,” one man tells me. “This is a work area.”

I respect his authority. This morning he is the foreman, while I am a mere bystander, pausing only to watch.

I stop in at Village Auto to make an inquiry. After a long bout of illness, now recovered from injury, the owner is back to work. Sounds of hammer strikes and jets of compressed air erupt from the back bays, affirming his presence.

Further up Winthrop Street a laborer emerges from the front doorway of a gutted house and heaves an armful of splintered boards onto the pile of debris in the side yard.

Everywhere men are at work in the village this morning: tearing down, building up, trimming, fixing, repairing, improving both their lot and the collective lot of their fellow human beings.

I too have been busy this morning, keenly observing laborers and landscape, periodically pausing in the midst of all this activity, seemingly unable to differentiate the secular from the sacred, perfectly content.

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Away from all pests

“[W]e understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only very faintly – not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice.”

— Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

“The pest guy is here!” my wife announces from where she stands by the kitchen sink, hands immersed in soapsuds.

I peer out the side window. A white pickup truck sits in our driveway with the engine idling. The magnetic sign on the driver’s door advertises a local pest control company. They are here to do the bi-monthly pesticide applications to our house and garage. This will be their last scheduled visit to our home until spring.

I slip my arms through my bulky vest, reach for my cap and step out the kitchen door onto the stoop. A brisk breeze shoots across the back yard and stings my cheek. I zip up the vest and raise the padded collar around my neck.

A young Latino sits in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, head down, jotting notes on a clipboard resting in his lap. He looks up as I approach and rolls the window down.

“Hello,” he says with a wide smile. “I’m here to do the pesticide application to your house and garage. Is this an okay time?”

“No problem,” I say. “I’ve got the day off. Do you need to access the basement? I’ll open the hatchway for you.”

He descends from the truck and reaches a portable sprayer from the rear. He pauses to don a heavy camouflage coat before following me around the house to the other side. “It really got cold,” he says with a shiver.

“It’s almost Thanksgiving,” I say. “Winter is just around the corner.”

I bend down to open the hatchway, then descend the concrete steps to the basement. In the dim grey interior my hand finds the switch , and the cellar floods with light.

The young man proceeds to make his way around the periphery of the stonewall foundation, pumping the tank, applying a fine spray as he moves along.

“I haven’t seen you before,” I say. “Have you worked for the company long?”

“This is my first season,” he says. “I picked it up as a part-time job. Actually, tomorrow is my last day.”

“Really? You don’t much care for the work?”

“Oh, the work is fine; but it’s seasonal. We all get laid off for the winter. Next week I’m heading out to California on my motorcycle until spring. I’ve got some good friends out there. If I can find a full time job, I might not come back.”

“I imagine they’ve got pest control services out there too,” I say.

“Oh, I wouldn’t work in pest control,” he says. “Actually, I’m a trained massage therapist. I used to have a good job working at one of the local hospitals, but that fell through. I picked up this gig just to get me through the summer and fall. I figure I can probably find work as a massage therapist in California.”

“I’d wager the odds would be pretty good in your favor,” I say.

He finishes the application, and we retreat back up the concrete stairway. I secure the hatchway doors. “The garage is out back,” I say. “I’ll open it up for you.”

The wind cuts against our faces as we round the back corner of the house.

“It’s cold,” he says. “Glad I’ve got my heavy coat. I don’t care much for winter.”

“That’s New England,” I say, as I pull up the garage door.

He sprays an application along the perimeter. “I’ll treat the outside of both buildings,” he says. “You don’t have to wait outside. I’ll just pop the receipt in your mailbox when I’m done.”

“I don’t mind,” I say. “I just got back from a morning walk myself.”

He sets off and shortly finishes his assigned task. He stows the sprayer in the back of the pickup and reaches into the cab for the receipt. “Here you are,” he says with a smile.

“Thanks,” I say. “Good luck on your cross country motorcycle trek.”

“Yeah,” he grins. “I’ve never done anything like that before. It’s a little scary, but it should be fun. I like to explore; I like to meet new people. I just hope I can beat the snow.”

I watch him back the white truck out of the driveway and disappear down the street.

To be young and free, I reflect; unencumbered, looking ahead to a cross country trek to California, where sun and surf await one’s arrival; away from all pests, if only for a season.

Paddle at eventide

It’s been nearly a week since we turned the clocks back. Now that we’ve moved to Eastern Standard Time, the sunlight fades quickly by the end of the afternoon.

My friend figured that if we could launch the canoe by quarter past three, we’d have a good hour’s paddle on the river before dark.

It was a short drive to the access point. We donned our life jackets, eased the boat into the water and climbed aboard. Soon we were gliding downstream with the current. The surface of the river was smooth and flat.

“I fished this section quite a bit this past summer,” my friend said, as we drifted past scoured tree trunks half-submerged along the far bank. “Right here it drops off. Big bass lie in the deep holes under the wood.”

I looked down into the black water. You could see yellow leaves lying in the muck on the bottom; then suddenly, the bottom fell away.

We paddled downstream to the old red-stone bridge abutment on the bank.

“This is where the railroad crossed the river,” my friend said. “You can see the old pilings near the far bank.”

We eased up into the current to survey the stonework.

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Downstream we picked up speed as we pulled deep and feathered our paddles.

Suddenly, I heard a shout from the stern. “Look!” My friend gestured toward the bank with his chin as he held his paddle firmly in the water.

There, silhouetted at the top of the rise, four dark forms undulated upstream in a line.

“River otters!” my friend cried, as he swung the canoe around.

We watched them bob along in single file. Shortly, without warning, the lead otter careened down the bank and entered the water with a splash. A second followed closely behind, while the other two held steady at the top of the rise.

Heads bobbed up above the surface, then disappeared in rings of water. As we maneuvered closer, I saw a dark form leave the water and disappear into the muddy bank beneath the bare roots of an old tree. Another form soon followed.

Shortly, we heard a series of mewing sounds from inside the bank, as well as from the top of the rise.

“There’s two adults and two kits,” my friend said. “They’re calling the young into the water.”

Silently, we waited, dead in the water.

Suddenly, one of the otters emerged from the hole in the bank and slid into the river with a small splash. The other one was not far behind.

We traced the string of bubbles as they moved toward a stand of wood. Finally, two heads bobbed to the surface.

I held my smartphone up and tapped the button several times.

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Another set of splashes sounded behind us. The two remaining otters had slid down the bank into the river.

We followed them across to the other side, where they disappeared for good.

We turned the canoe around just below the second set of old pilings and paddled hard against the current.

By the time we had the canoe secured to the roof rack on the car, the oaks on the far mountain blazed burnt orange in the last rays of the evening sun.

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