he sat on the porch in the old swing swaying forward and back, forward and back. the creaks beneath him moved in a cadence that repeated time and again, smooth and comforting, like the creek he imagined he could hear gurgling nearby. he could hear gurgling now, but it was the guttural croaking and gasping of the washing machine just inside. the bubbling was more urgent and not nearly as calming, demanding his attention insistently before it could collapse back into the background noise of the evening.
it was a spring evening in denver, a season of new and unpredictable turns in the weather. all afternoon the sun had been entertaining rain clouds that lingered about the great plain and the table mesas to the west, guests reluctant to move on without festively pouring one more out.
the porch was the perfect place to watch the evening roll, perched a few steps up from the street on the part of the city raised above the rest. his was the only swing in the neighborhood—few porches here, and fewer wooden benches swinging arthritically from chains, covered in decaying paint and facing reflectively out to the west. he had marveled at the swing, the first time he saw it; indeed it had been a chief part of his impulsive decision to buy the place. it reminded him of the porches back east, decked in adirondack chairs or flanked by bright swings piled high in pillows overlooking the azalea bushes in the front lawn. porch swings were for sipping lemonade as the afternoon sun streamed over the pages of a good book, or for punctuating low conversations with swats at mosquitos as the fireflies came out and the last blazes of pink clouds cooled to purple, then blue. the porch swing would swing lazily back and forth, stirring the humid air of the summer and keeping the words close, swirling langoriously about the heads of its occupants, then carrying them a little further when the breeze moved in at dusk.
so he sat on his porch swing now, the floor of the porch concrete rather than old hardwood, unpainted and with a crisp rough surface beneath his toes, rather than the crackling chips of old paint. the stone cooled beneath his feet as the clouds and evening moved in, the temperature of the day falling much faster than it would in that humid air above the azaleas. the trees across the street scarcely held leaves, the timid buds only just venturing forth from winter hibernation, though it was nearly memorial day. he missed the close, dense humidity of spring back east, where green and color and pollen and growth leapt from every pore, coming alive in a saturated animation accelerated to the point that he could practically see the tendrils race and blossoms bursting before his eyes.
here in the west the sky held the blooms. what he recalled of flower gardens cultivated with reverent devotion, which burst to the sidewalks offering dew-laden boughs and brilliant bouquets, he could find out in denver when he looked up. up, past the short reach of the trees some thoughtful planner had introduced to these plains for the likes of coastal folk like him, up past the molding on crumbling buildings and the shiny siding on the new condos, up to just over his head in any direction—all directions—and any time of the day he could see this land’s version of bursting spring gardens. what humidity back east dewed the green leaves and petals about his waist out here was called upward, to speck the high-up clouds and streak the whorls of the cloud systems that spun overhead. the clouds petaled and bloomed, opening and closing in exquisite formations, at times absorbing myriad colors from the sky around them and twisting them into graceful confections, at others exploding to release them into the vast expanse overhead.
he could not put them in a vase in the kitchen for his woman, but he could watch them catch the breeze and buzz with color and motion the way he used to gaze over the azaleas. he could not capture them for a still life to perch above the coathooks just inside the door, but he could watch them from the creaking porch swing as they lavished broad strokes across the sky overhead. he could not hold them, or keep them, but he could bask here on the porch in the fragrance the western blooms breathed over everything at dusk, and usher it indoors to accompany the gurgling of the washer and the fading evening light. so he sat a while longer, gently swirling eddies of cloud inside with each slow swing of the creaking bench.
My mother signed off into her double mastectomy with a Harry Potter reference. Damned if I don’t have the coolest mom on the planet.
“I think about that, and it is strong and lovely in my mind. I truly believe it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether or not you yourself happen to have seen them or not.”
—Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)
Visions, as I see them, come in the morning, or by water. By morning it’s in the shower, when the logic and forces of reason and rationality have not yet cemented the creative possibilities of the day. It’s when prose comes to me, or emails or letters; it’s when words come thick and heavy in jumbles, then cadences, then repeated sequences, coalescing and parting in a most viscous creative flow. It’s not whirring, like the furious tapping or jotting that caffeine fuels, indeed it’s separate from physical productivity entirely. No, this time in the morning is pre-caffeine, pre-hydration, pre-mobility, even, when the mind’s awakening moves as a viscous underlayer beneath the shower’s deluge.
“Simple syrup” might be a good term for it—not complex, nor fast-moving, but filled with particles swilled together that when poured into water coil into langorious loops and puddle. When they are agitated—awakened—that layer disintegrates, blended into the clear water of the morn, levened, lightened, sweetened and energized into something which only flavors the moving water of the day.
Vision comes, then, in the morning, or by water. Sitting by moving water, as under the shower, induces that rich, slow flow of thought which moves and filters light differently from the thinner, more transient and rapidly moving thought that stirs and swirls and races on its way during the rest of the day. Vision comes strong, and lovely, and sweet. Indeed it is waste and ingratitude not to savor its taste.
came the cry
Hushed and hallowed
before the infernal call…
The hellhounds bayed,
Came clawing at the door.
The gale force raged
Pulling boughs to the floor.
What lay outside could scarce be seen,
Though the noise, the rage, came bright and keen:
The Devil’s, perhaps—a fiend’s at least—
Minions tearing, slavering, preying this feast.
Knocks drew close and terror mounted;
What thieves were these, after what bounty?
Locks and key and fortified door—
No gap even for prayers of prey to soar.
Eyes meet eyes, shared fearful whites;
What solace in good’s, verse evil’s, plight?
Baying bellows, from land without name
From beyond the wall, now engulfed in flame.
The last stand nigh, assume brave stance,
One more time, eyes look askance—
One’s puzzled first, then whites go wider…
As a pearly face divines ghastly smile.
Within walls so sealed prayer can’t escape
Grins faith’s last hope, the cruelest jape:
For rarely does Satan roar outside the door,
When he can whisper softly “fear no more.”
What changes in the mountains, for one, is how often you write. What changes is how much you need to put pen to paper, to pull those musings knocking about your head down through ink, to stain fiber and cease coloring the walls of the mind. No, there’s far less dwelling, mulling, stewing in the mountains. The hyperactive mind born of yearning limbs and eyes for heights and sights dissipates, when those things are available.
Living in the mountains gives a satiety of place, of body, that outstrips the mind’s ability to latch onto whatever parts of us might remain unsated, unfulfilled, wanting. Those voids will revisit, occasionally, upon turning out the light and curling up to sleep, but out here efforts to quiet the sounds of those emptinesses more often must compete with quieting ebullient anticipation of upcoming adventures.
We learn in philosophy that to love is to experience wanting something we don’t have; that yearning, that desire, that want and fear of losing, is love. So often what compels us to write is the poignancy of that loss: of sitting poised to lose, or having lost, something we love. Loving a place feels different, though. It’s a comfort unlike another person; it won’t go anywhere but by our own volition. The mountains stay there, at once impassive and open-armed, and we rush to them with the fervor of any lover.
We don’t write so well about this love, either. It’s too big, too colossal, all-encompassing, consuming to adequately explain. The awe and wonder, the stirring of the soul is so complete, so uncontained that the attempt to ensnare it, to catch even a portion of it invariably falls short. This is nature, after all; this is gods’ country—there is a reason religions begin here and that here spirituality is reborn.
When one lives in the mountains the compulsion to write does not leave us so much as change shape. What in other places we hope to convey with ink upon paper, in nature we leave in skin, breath, sweat, upon rocks and trees, water, snow and leaves. While our pens spill what the mind cannot keep contained in places of industry, of people and of reflecting windows, in nature our bodies write what soul the body cannot contain. In the mountains our page is boundless, our syntax shaped by earthen contours and big sky, our synonyms conjured with muscles and sinews. We write of the profound within using the vastness of the expanse that surrounds us.
Writ then, in the mountains, are my stories of love and of loss, of wanting and keeping, losing and finding. Writ in the mountains are the stories of my soul.
Now, back to writing.
Cardinals. I think of Jimmy when I read the word, think of him because of baseball. Then I think deeper and think of birds, then caps and embroidered gowns in a cathedral. This makes me look to etymology, to answer the bright red chicken-or-egg question that snares my attention.
Cardo, for a Latin “door hinge,” expanded to mean “principle, chief, pivotal.” They think it first stood for the men who guarded the doors of the pagan temples, way back. They used it in the church beginning only in the late 1600s; what it meant in the centuries between remains behind the doors of history. From there, it became an adjective to emphasize the gravity of the priests’ own influence by redoubling its connotations of pivotal function and crucial import: cardinal sins, cardinal virtues, and—for the literal, not moral, compass—cardinal directions.
Centuries later the red flash in a tree during winter elicited comparison to the ecclesiastical flock: the male finch with his tufted cap amidst the pure white snow could certainly not be scarlet, but cardinal, in hue. He’s a songbird, his name repeated twice in scientific taxonomy—once for cap and once for gown; once for door and once for hinge; once for sin and once for virtue—Cardinalis cardinalis.
Now we crop it short—abbreviating as the church men do when they sign between first and last with the nomenclature of their office—when we talk about baseball. We think of Carpenter, Freese, Holliday, maybe disparage Pujols; how much we know about these Cardinals. A little etymology opens new doors, however.
(At the very least, it lends new meaning to his old mantra: “‘Cards’ is my middle name.”)
[Extra points to anyone who catches all the drink names written into the essay.]
“Write drunk, edit sober,” you know the old adage. Fancy yourself a drinker, fancy yourself a writer; Hemingway bubbles reliably, obediently, to the surface. Clever metaphor, you’ll think, as you idly watch spheres of carbonation climb in tendrils, along beaded tracks, to pop and fizz within the amber refractions of your cheap plastic glass.
You’ll be sitting, about as reliably, before a laptop screen in your postgrad apartment. Old enough now to booze without the thrill of a party, to booze quietly on a couch alongside your computer because that’s intellectual; because it loosens the words that come to your fingers as once loosened your morals. Those days refract to you too, through an amber filter—sepia, more accurately, now, because you’re a deeper thinker, a darker thinker; pensive with a purpose, a writer in your own right. Those were lighter beers, sweeter whiskeys, cheaper metaphors. You’ve grown wiser and more worldly, sharply analytical of the world—whirled—around you, with help from the whorls within your glass.
You could make a world, in its own right, within that glass, you realize. You could envision a world peopled by figures perched upon those bubbles, who ride those tracks, who meander along those carbonated tendrils. Different worlds within each different glass—worlds next to worlds crowded on a shelf, bottled in refrigerators, and hurtling along tubes and nozzles to splash within a glass; worlds brewed in giant casks, worlds carefully distilled in the helices of glass tubing, worlds fermented in chipped bathtubs and born of the stomping of stained scarlet toes. Every local bar becomes, as you see it now, whole universes that contain worlds within worlds: some ice-cold, others vividly-hued, some thick and viscous, others fizzy and effervescent.
The things you could be, the places you could go. The worlds come with names and labels already affixed—you know because you’ve ordered them before. Imperiously. What would it be, though, to live them? Empirically. To become a dark and stormy night, or a flying dog; to rough-and tumble as sailors, captains, and krakens; to hold court as wise men, apocalyptic horsemen, and green fairies? To wear cloaks of kings and queens, royalty, rogues, and superheroes? To cross borders of nations and eras, crashing steins with barmaids, tankards with American revolutionaries, swords with Tudor Marys? To travel to Siberia, finding white Russians, black Russians, Moscow mules, hop czars, and, for the hell of it, a taste of backyard Russian water? To perambulate, old-fashioned, in Manhattan, strolling a world steeped in old Americana, thronging with girl scouts, peppermint patties, and barbershops; to explore natural worlds rife with exotic fauna: grey geese, yellow-tails, blue dolphins, salty dogs and greyhounds, landsharks? To exist, for as long as you like, in the aching beauty of a world suspended in the brilliant hues of stopped time, cast and set in the radiant layers of a bottled sunrise? What a world it would be.
The bubbles of your drink rise less often, now, and don’t travel nearly as far. The amber surface sits lower; the tide has receded, your imagination meanders as the screen dims. You’re not as jaded as you think you are, triple-fisting potion and pretentions and prose. You’re not as old as you think you are. You’re sitting here, coaxing bubbles up a straw and dreaming of the worlds to which they could carry you away.