Tao of Water

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Recite the alphabet, a silent sing-song recitation, roll hands one over sudsy other, digits and thumb, up the wrist, rinsing and turning. Zed. Omega. I try it backwards. At night, when the doors are locked and the shades drawn, I rub ointment into my knuckles.

Water makes small choices; a pebble might turn a flood.

Raccoons wash their food, roll muddy tubers and tuna fish sandwiches one paw over the other down on rocks next to the stream. They dip digits in a can of stolen shortening and gobble handfuls of greasy fat, sneak into the house through the cat door and look for crackers in the cupboard, a time after Rogue died and before Mercy was whelped.

I faced a raccoon nearly as big as the dogs, spit-sapping shock at the size of it, looking for a weapon without shifting focus away, settling for the broom at hand. It came in June to pluck ripe strawberries along with the crowns. I let it.

A group of raccoons is called a gaze. After dusk one summer night, a gaze in the neighbor’s backyard killed their cat while they stood at the door and flicked the porch lights on and off and, stamping wailing thrashing, watched.

Hail comes to hammer the gutters, applause of thunder, rivulets run down the roof of the shed and pool in the strawberry bed.

Water makes small choices.

Grounded

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Wisteria blooms in full-falling clusters from a weathered arbor out front. Bees and hummingbirds leave off the fading rosemary to suck nectar from the blooms.

Peas are up, shallots and radish sprouting. Downhill streets are quieter, though more people walk up the hill now. They climb the road and then stand unsure why they came this way. They take in the panorama and then turn to trudge down again.

Mercy barked at one recent tourist approaching the grass verge while I planted red onion seed, doing her job as sentry, scaring some startled man back down the hill before I could round the bamboo and compost pile to see what excitement was upon us. The dog wags and smiles at strangers, but never lets them touch her. We’re all grounded now, it’s time-out.

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Mom grounded me for two weeks in high school. Although my school had an open campus policy, Madame was a neighbor. Madame felt she must report I missed three French classes during spring term of junior year, a pity (quel dommage!) as she painted pictures of great potential if I would only learn to apply myself. French class fell during fourth period, immediately following a free third period when my friends and I would slink out to the baseball dugout and smoke a blunt. I always brought along my textbook and studied the three verbs du jour, but sometimes wandered off with the crew afterwards to find something for lunch. Grounded.

That was all long before Zoom and Facetime, but still the same simply doing time. Friends came by on Friday night and tapped at my bedroom window, but on Saturday night I pretended to be sleeping. I never missed French class again and probably never truly learned to apply myself.

Down at the river yesterday I gathered flat skipper river rocks and filled the back game pockets of my vest with them until both pockets sagged and I doubted my balance. I didn’t want to trip on a tree root into the current and do a Virginia Woolf without any intention and definitely without leaving a note.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 

Treading

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“She treads on the tail of a tiger

and is not bitten;

That which treads

does not stay,”

— I Ching, Hexagram 10

Rain seeps down and cradles the plum blossoms before dropping into the brambles. Out on the hill the wild turkeys gather. There are many hens and a few formidable males strutting after. Their tails are fanned and their chest feathers ruffed, making a show of light playing off the metallic sheen of copper and graphite quills flashing gold.

I find feathers in the grass; the best of them stand in a jar outside the backdoor like a bouquet. They are said to be a sign of prosperity and abundance. Mercy stands at the window and growls and frets at the mating display. Though I might let her out to scatter the birds when there are fewer, not now, not when the heat is on them.

I hear the big birds down in the woods when the dog and I walk out and remain watchful until we pass. The turkeys call to each other in high peeping chirps to gather and form a flock, a small unexpected whine from such large bodies.

They can fly, and do, when the dog charges them out on the grass verge, 100 yards into the fir trees. I’m careful, because she would kill one if she caught it, or worse, didn’t kill it and had to fight raptor claws. I don’t want to kill a turkey as much as the dog wants blood and we hold that equilibrium. When we show ourselves, the birds grow nervous, leave off their pecking and edge toward the woods. It’s best now, before poulting, because they don’t remember from season to season.

One spring turkeys adopted our elderly neighbor’s deck as their territory. Vic and Shirley were unable to go out to the garden without being mobbed by twenty-pound birds. I bought them a slingshot and showed them how to shoot dried chickpeas from the doorway. Mercy and I patrol the fence line.

I carry a long strong lead in a heavy case bought online from Gun Dog Supply, the only one I’ve found she hasn’t snapped. Yet. She’s broken steel cables and pulled posts from porches where cables were anchored. I don’t need to lift weights. I fly a hundred-pound dog.

I submitted a piece to a literary journal this morning, the first after many months turned away. How long to polish the shield before the reflection of the gorgon is clear enough to strike? Dither here, in this public scrapbook, posting markers and milestones so I might remember.

Rain seeps down and bows the buttery cones of the first daffodils along the river. Geese pass high and cry as they circle, pairs come in low to land along the canal by the footbridge. Herons fish alone and nest together, awkward above their nests in high branches of one tree. The dog swims after sticks and watches the geese land beyond her reach.

Under the cedars, sheltered from the rain, there is a rough-hewn totem most probably intended to represent Squirrel. Mercy wants to take it up and shake it, but I offer her a fallen branch instead. It doesn’t look much like a squirrel to me, but I’m distracted.

I think the Year of the Rat arrived.

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Lexicon

It’s said the Inuit people know 50 names for snow. Living half the year in long darkness, half in forever midsummer sun, the names came from patient study and deliberation, conferring with elders and ancestors, and finally from standing alone on the frozen tundra to shout a name to the wind to learn which snow must answer.

Not Siletz or Siuslaw, neither Coos nor Kalapuya, I was merely born on the delta between two wild sisters, two swift rivers in the time of mighty Chinook running, born here where rain falls a lullaby on the eaves, listening to cloud, lashing the cedars. Perhaps, the wind says, it is time. Are we the last great rain shadow remaining?  It is daunting. I am unqualified. Nevertheless now, as a grown woman with time running short, I begin the work of setting down this imperfect translation.

The scholar will note that this lexicon is forever inaccurate and incomplete, as most linguistic equivalences between poetry and mathematics are impossible. However, I present this imperfect compilation as a primer, a basic catalog, meant merely as an outline of myriad nuance. For just as snow evolves to find novel forms, rain invents itself anew each generation; each manifestation awaits a hearing, an integration, awaits its true name spoken to the wind.

The Names of Rain, in Mostly Alphabetic Order

Ashrel – dervish rain lifts fishes from the ocean

Bentah – walks on mountain sleeping late

Cihtel – brings Camas to bloom and softens earth to dig roots

Drem – tamps cooking smoke from leaving lodge

Enili – paints rainbows

Fege – sends geese to ground to wait for sky

Gryth – cools the face at corn time

Haili – dogs hide under the bed and howl

Inii – mixes with tears of mourning

Joos – plays pipes across the long pond

Klakatesh – washes the berries before picking time

Laqu’me – children run and laugh gathering firewood

Muus – mothers nurse newborns in the doorway

Nehali – toppling ancestor tree from root

O’roko – Chinook climb currents home to spawn

Papuq – lovers watch the moon

Quzshet – rides with thunder

Rokama – pisses on the slippers left outside

Snalak – wakes the crows to fend off the hawk

Tek – trout rising for mayfly

Umoq – making peace and taking pride at potlatch

Vru’ku – sleeping with spirits

Wewemi – closes the dance beside the fire

Xalj – after the fever breaks

Yopuna – grandmothers crack acorns and talk story

Za’aln – hearing the heartbeat of the land and weeping

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Please note this is a work of imagination and the lexicon is a figment of my own mythology~

 

 

Witch Hazel

Far away from down the hill, a child cries. The wailing swells and then suddenly falls away.

The river is full and fast, deceptively swift. The dog pulls toward the old boat landing where she likes to swim, but I nudge her the other way, toward the fresh-filt canals where geese and wood ducks shelter.

It’s last quarter moon, gauzy and gray, dissolving since the eclipse brought storm and havoc. Ringed by snow in the foothills embracing the valley, the mountains wait. A winter’s snow pack fell in the Cascades over the course of the moon. Wind down the wick of this lunar year, before the Rat arrives, when the scenery changes with new parts and lines to learn.

Pheasant skim along atop the muddy fields. Mercy is preoccupied with ground squirrel burrows.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and so Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina.

Are there happy families? Or are there only eddies swirling after the rapids, a submerged spiral born from equal measure forbearance and exhaustion? Photographs of Britain’s ginger Prince are recycled every day on news sites announcing his break from a gilded royal family ward to earn his keep like an American. (Indeed, there are no kings are queens here, save commerce.) In other news, our US President is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Crossing the bark path we meet a woman with a yellow Lab as tall as my chocolate. The dogs greet each other and we fall into step. When we turn toward the canals, they join us. A flock of Canada geese notice us approaching and toddle toward the water, I unleash Mercy to charge them and send the birds scolding. The woman releases her dog Mac, who is enthusiastic but confused.

“He doesn’t swim,” she says, “besides, it’s so cold,” I throw sticks in the water for Mercy and Mac wades along the reeds until finally he let’s go of his footing and swims.

We leave them to walk a loop along the waterway as rain spits down harder. Gray-on-gray, among bare branches and bristled fir, the flowering yellow petals of witch hazel glow alone.

 

Advent

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Black Friday I lit the fire early hoping to relieve the laboring heat pump banging and shedding ice. Brew chai and plug it with honey, survey the frost and fog.

Two weeks until Solstice; the Sun hangs three days before turning.

Black Friday open an inbox of advertisements, act-now deals, coupon codes, and come-ons that just keep coming. Even the organization administering Mercy’s microchip data sends emails pitching personalized collars and dog beds. Two years ago I ordered a light from Home Depot and can’t get the unsubscribe option to stick. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. The newspaper itself is a slim fraction of the inserts stuffed inside. An offer for 10% off pet insurance just arrived. Monetize is the mantra.

Night falls during a dense afternoon and a crow pecks at the last withered apple.

I like to shop at the local hardware store. The handsome clerk downstairs with long gray hair and frost blue eyes is patient prompting me through the payment options on the card reader and the music piped through the store is classic rock not Christmas carols. I buy strands of multi-colored lights and string them around the house, toy with timers, light them up when I come upstairs in the morning and leave them on all day.

There are Christmas tree farms nearby. Trees are carefully trimmed each year, cultivated to achieve the classical cylinder shape expected by consumers, and then cut and sent to lots in the cities. There are free permits to cut a spruce, fir, or pine in the national forest, wild trees all akimbo and chaotic. When I was growing up and my family went upriver to cut a wild tree, I was skeptical when I saw the jagged limbs; yet, hung with lights and glass and shine, an ungainly tree transforms just as magically.

When I lived in southwest Oklahoma, I adopted a black Labrador named McKenzie, a cunning dog from a Cajun duck hunter’s litter. I named him for my homesick river and assured him there was wild clear water in the world. There was nothing evergreen out on the Plains, nothing except great globes of mistletoe strung in the oaks. When we went to the Christmas tree lot and looked over the selection of trees available, I refused to buy one. They were dry and brown, just like the landscape, needles already shedding. I bartered to take their freshest cuttings for a few dollars.

McKenzie and I walked out along Medicine Creek, where the tallest trees grew, with a frisbee in hand. I hurled the disc up hard into the oaks and knocked off bunches of mistletoe. McKenzie retrieved the frisbee. I threw it again. We worked together until we gathered armfuls of green and then we went home. I wove the mistletoe and bartered pine cuttings into an interlacing structure and decorated it with lights and ornaments.

Every year since, with any evergreens at hand, I weave an alter of rosemary, holly, fir, and pine. Strike fire in a time of stone. There is the magic.

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Heron

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Fog seeps in during the dark morning hours and licks at windows and jambs. It may dissolve by noon, or it may settle and weep for a week. Out of the valley, above, the sky is bitter blue and the sun radiant. Waiting in traffic, playing with the radio.

One or the other, not both. Choose.

At some point the building inspector comes to check the new hot water heater installed yesterday. There’s a sign stapled outside displaying the permit number. The old tank started leaking and a towel laid to soak up the rivlet needed changing twice a day, wringing out one and barricading with another, hanging the wet one out on the deck railing to drip. It’s a hybrid hot water heater with wifi, warming a tank of water via heat rummaged from the air. It looks like the robot from Lost in Space.

D. managed the replacement, as with all the structural and engineering things that go wrong in a household because he’s a wizard, moving my plastic bins packed full of salvaged wrapping paper and Christmas ornaments from the garage shelves to run the condensate line along the wall to drain outside, and then stacking them carefully back. Before the young men came to install the new heater, I took a long hot shower and combed through my hair with my fingers to shed any honey locust leaves, because civilization is held together with duct tape.

Dancers learn to spot during an extended turn, during a fouetté, a pirouette, to maintain body line and balance without becoming dizzy. A dancer focuses her eyes on a fixed point as she turns, whipping her head around ahead of the turning body to maintain equilibrium.

Pick a farther spot, one in the middle distance, and don’t let go.

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Coyote

“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”

–Cameron Mackenzie, Cutbank Weekly Flash Prose

The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.

This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.

I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.

Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.

Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.

 

Sunset

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“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.”

–Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Rain rips the red leaves from the dogwood and whips waves of gold down from the birch. A frost last week, though not hard and certain, was enough warning to corral the potted citrus and thorny bougainvillea inside for the season. Crushing acorns underfoot as we walk the trails, a year in the making. The crows pick the meat from the shells and the dog charges the squirrels when we return. Shed.

Houses in the old neighborhood are decorated for Halloween. It seems it’s always been this way, this casting and passing, this litter of leaves.  Dad’s ginger dog Ben and I walk down to the park. We pass lawns decked out with styrofoam tombstones, trees dangling plastic pumpkins lit by violet eyes. These are wards, I know, talismans strung on each threshold to forestall unfriendly spirits, effective even if purchased at a box store. After the cross-quarter, such magic, no longer needed, will be assigned to the trash. But the warding is sincere. Darkness gathering in the north, we walk on.

 

 

Downtown

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Yesterday I went downtown. I checked my hair for leaves and twigs and changed out of dog clothes.

Pam and I meet up at the Thai place where I order red curry, extra spicy, with eggplant and tofu. Pam still works on the 4th floor and shares her play-by-play intrigue at the office, a one-page sheet outlining goals of the next reorganization, current buzz words like “inclusive” and “creative,” a forecast of a brilliant and final restructure ensuring everlasting productivity and prosperity. Whatever. I make my predictions and give Pam her birthday present. Our server’s name is Eternity.

A quarter block from the restaurant, in an alley behind the video arcade bar, a homeless woman’s skull was crushed when a garbage truck ran over her while she slept early one morning last month. There is no city hall here. It was torn down and paved into a parking lot. New structures fill the pits that yawned so long from the demolished Woolworth and Sears buildings, empty so long that groves sprung from the cracked concrete at the bottom. It’s still the same downtown I left three years ago.

I’ve earned $560 since then, writing words of my own.


Six months ago, I resigned from a job working in a shabby cubicle with a stunning view to the east. I rarely turned around from my dual monitors to look out the window, not unless there was a rainbow or a police take-down at the transit station.  Even then, I only turned because other staff rushed in to lean against the credenza, chattering and pointing and leaving fingerprints on the glass. I spent too many years in different cubes, in hindsight all remarkably the same. I write at home now. I spend long moments lost, gazing out windows.

–Excerpt from “Vagabond,” originally published 2017 in Thoughtful Dog