December 14, 2018 / Afterglow
She died close to winter, as it turned out, when I wasn’t there. I went to the arboretum to look for her, the crunch of frost and grief underfoot but the sun still blazing above. I hadn’t been to the shrub garden all year, preferring the curves of the hills, but now I followed its path to some bare old daphnes and shaven bluebeards, their candy boxed and bound for spring. In a corner plot, a few preserved sunflowers; caught by the frost while their faces found light.
I walked among the linden trees, bare as old brooms that’d swept the sky clean. There was an old silver maple, nothing left in its arms. It wouldn’t wake until spring, when sap would slide through its veins with the thaw.
The last time I’d come here the trees were still shedding; they had burned red and gold, lost their soft leather leaves in my hands. I had walked through the woods, kicked the litterfall down to the lake. Now only the cedars were green. The year was closing in.
She wasn’t here. I made for the gate, wanting music and warmth as the cold came in hard. Holiday lights twinkled through the trees; gold against oak, the beginnings of fires. I thought I'd find her there.
I almost missed it as I left the park: a small holly bush on the side of the road, its red berry beads strung up like glass baubles. I reached out my hand, held its tag up to the thinning light. “Afterglow,” it said.
September 9, 2019 / On the elegance of donkeys
Nobody considers the donkey elegant. We call him jack, or an ass. Nobody swallows their breath at the sight of his mane, or ties her tail to the rump of a taxi for good luck.
The mustang, on the other hand, gets called things like ‘majestic’. Last night we watched a show where people were given one hundred days to tame a wild one. Some of them were bucked to the ground. Extreme Mustang Makeover, they called it. There’s no Extreme Donkey Makeover.
All afternoon I sat with the donkeys, a safari of dragonflies closing down the summer. I studied the crosses that mark their backs—slivers of charcoal that cross at their shoulders and run to their tails. And I remembered how, on a distant safari, we rounded a corner where waterbuck stood: ears out like petals, coats threaded with the first days of fall. Before us the Mara river unwound: a gray spool of thread being warmed by the day, sun having bleached the night away like lemon. The river ran between two cliffs, and on one of them were wildebeest—hundreds of them, moving back and forth in a cloud of blue-gray. They seemed to be conducting a safety assessment, appraising the line between danger and fear. Was it unsafe to cross or were they just scared?
We watched them decide. “There’s more grass somewhere”, someone nearby said, and as the wildebeest plunged into the dangerous wash, the support of the group at their backs, those words caught on me. I remembered the old spiritual song that was played last spring at the mountain wedding of friends. There’s more love somewhere, it went, and the somewhere was there.
The thing about the crocodile is that nobody questions him. We hold him in awe, don’t doubt his competence. But when the wildebeest entered the water, plunged their tightly tucked tails into his salty wash, the crocodile floundered. He lurched open jawed, poorly timing his snaps, like a malfunctioning toy from a family board game.
There’s an idea, I think, that pain is something rarefied. That once you’ve worked with it, spun something soft from its threads, that simple textures must matter less.
But if fear is a wild thing to tame, to make ordinary, then so too is joy.
I could have written the story of the treacherous river. How the crocodile lost and the wildebeest won. I could have studied the photo of the three of their faces — his arm outstretched, as if wrapping me in.
Instead I sliced apples for donkeys. I went down to the barn—kitchen stove glowing, eggplant slowly silkening in spicy broth. The donkeys ran to the gate, jostling for place, snorting as their hay-scuffed lips muddied my hands. And as they brayed wholeheartedly—awkward but joyful, like the kind of off-key karaoke you only half regret in the morning, I thought to myself: may we all bear our crosses with the elegance of donkeys—those fine bands of shadow that simply trace their strong backbones—than give too much thought to crocodiles.
Later, after everyone had eaten, I lay by the fire—cat and bark curling, embers spitting out seconds of gold. And the warmth came up.