A Walk in the Woods and a Poem

IMG_1211When I walk with my daughter Maya in the woods, I’m often torn between two competing impulses. The urge to discover together and to explain — to point out the wonders of a worm or seed or changing leaf — does battle with the need for silence, for soaking it all in.

Letting Maya lead the way is a solution of sorts — she darts about, looking and poking, asking questions or not. Unlike the Waldorf teacher I spoke with this week, I don’t think facts about nature are a burden to the mind, and try to answer her — or look up new information — as I can. She is a budding naturalist, at any rate, always wondering what different animals eat, where seeds live in the dirt, and which sprouts in the lawn are the onion grass she knows she can munch on.

Amidst the lessons, though, there is still the mysterious mystery, as she put it the other day. There is a quiet place where information is not the point. And ensuring that children get into the woods in an unmediated way — and have a direct confrontation with Life (and our relevance or irrelevance to its systems) — is essential.

Years back, I wrote a poetic response to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, Wild Geese, that hits upon these themes, and I thought of it again recently as the spring weather has brought us more time playing outdoors.

The argument from design

begins with meticulous veins in this mulberry leaf
and ends with God.  But I say it’s a long way from
lichen to leaf to omniscience, and in that journey one must account

for sea creatures that reproduce without sex, whatever sense that makes,
and for mass extinctions, the great blow-ups and die-offs,
and where does silliness come from in this telling?

It’s so serious to look at an oak and find the how
and why we’re here that I can’t bear to live in such a place,
under a heavy hand signing itself by virtue of its own complexity

mistaking a system which lives and dies with reasons
for living and dying — origins, organs knit together,
entangled like only tautologies are. Too easy lessons stolen

from the absent quiet of the woods, or unwitting peace
of geese and wind above a pond. I fail
to see how it explains the central flaw of us, our

pained self-consciousness.
A garden without us is no feat at all, yet there’s
no hint of plans for us inside

that vague, enormous mind. Instead, the delicate
web, reliant on knowing all reasons.
And why make something so delightful just to hand it,

thoughtlessly, to children,
with our violence, our near-total lack of knowing,
our terrible need to know.

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California Dreamin’

IMG_1659I spent last week in California, traveling for work. I was lucky enough to be staying in Aptos, on the coast. We saw dolphins swimming by the shore, and the weather was perfect.

I was talking about the surreality of California’s climate and the oddly filtered quality of the light there with a new friend, when I suddenly recalled a poem I wrote many years ago on the exact subject, right after moving to California to go to law school and finding the adjustment from the East Coast a bit more than I expected.

So here you are, a displacement poem. Let’s say it’s to note the pleasure of making a new friend, of the kind that instantly leads to candid, vulnerable conversation.

Living in California

Orion is not where I left him, wistfully boarding my plane to the West.
At dusk, the Palo Alto air surprises, dropping ten degrees,

erasing daylight with a chill. Winter brings green tendrils to these starving hills like some absurdist variant of spring.

Among the jagged palms and eucalyptus, sawdust tricks the air
with pine and musty rot.

I’ve lost some paper that explained all this to me — when and why to tilt my head, bring a sweater or wear shorts.

Visceral signs of my curious fit with the weather, drenching storms that have no rage, no crystal shocks of lightning, their flair and mortal flash.

Sun is leveraged here against a spotless sky. The clarity of things is no surprise, and few remark on gorgeous days.

This diffuse, democratic light induces generosity, but seldom edges, or a need for hats, for gloves, a million

useless things, my understanding of the permanence of stars, a spatial lesson that I did not know I knew,

that somehow still displaces me within this wider sky,
these well-intended, lovely days.

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The End of Summer

Yesterday at the pool, the air had a bite to it, causing both Maya and me to keep as much of our bodies submerged as we could, to the point of bobbing awkwardly just below the water line, stretched out in the baby pool.

And today after the rain cleared, the warmth largely went with it. At the park, it was possible to think of a light sweater with distinct longing.

In my small world, this end of summer has a pronounced bitter-sweetness. Maya is starting preschool in two weeks. It is a particular kind of beginning, the first year in which there is no “back” in back to school.

Up to this point, she’s been cared for by us, by a nanny and relatives based out of our home, which I realize is a very sheltered life. She’s never been to the hurly-burly of daycare, and has spent relatively little time around other children, with the exception of the four close-by cousins with whom she’s officially obsessed.

Hence, this beginning maintains an edge. It is an actual beginning, which is a rare thing, since most are colored by similar events before them.

And while I doubt that her play-based Reggio, two-days-a-week, co-op preschool bears much resemblance to Lord of the Flies, it nonetheless is the first time in which social consciousness may begin to be a force in the formation of her personality. Until now, she has never been:

  • late;
  • laughed at by others or teased;
  • embarrassed;
  • called upon to perform a particular task at a particular time;
  • asked to conform her day to a predetermined schedule;
  • spent any considerable time in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people;
  • been characterized as anything by other people within earshot of her, etc.

In short, for Maya this is the start of a social mode of being that is utterly novel, in a real sense. It comes with embedded expectations of her, and eventually, for her.

Of course, even without preschool, by age three, many of these things likely should have occurred, and would have occurred. But the advent of preschool marks them with clarity, and even allows us some attention and ceremony around them.

And it does feel like a loss of freedom, even for me as an instigator and second-hand observer. Today in the car, Nina Simone’s powerful anthem of unfettered naturalism, Feeling Good, came on, stirred up by the magic of shuffle:

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Contrast that with my much-beloved Adrienne Rich’s almost-clinical telling of the costs and benefits of a truly liminal moment:

Prospective Immigrants, Please Note

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

Of course, in the Rich poem, our courageous immigrant has a choice, and Maya has none. As parents, we hold all the choices still, and merely hope we’ve chosen well.

Then again, about growing up and, more tragically, starting to see ourselves with the double lens of how we are perceived by others, none of us have agency. I recall in high school, when we were encouraged to read a number of bildungsroman – novels about the passage from childhood or adolescence to the long twilight of adult life.

There is so much literary talent and attention spent on this moment, and so little on the earliest transition from a self-directed to a social being, perhaps because this initial stepping forth into the world happens alongside our meaningful first uses of language, and even prior to real memory. But if there is an “age of innocence,” surely this is it.

About school, I have as much ambivalence as most likely do. I remain deeply appreciative of certain teachers, and still have some friends from those faraway days. Yet when I think about it for any length of time, I also relive the harshness and bureaucracy of it: the way we watched those fundamentally humanitarian John Hughes films for clues about how to find, we hoped, our own comic forms of justice in all the petty mess.

Without learning and context, of course, we could never appreciate the transcendent. But still, as Maya enters the fray, stepping into the mundane of scheduling and schoolmates, I wonder to myself how to preserve her current intense presence in the world.

I once wrote a short poem, about an older girl tussling with these late-summer impulses and threats, poised in self-discovery. I was that girl, and the memory of bicycling up that steep incline is as clear as yesterday’s sunlight over the pool.

Gospel

Serious child, it is September.
You are bossing your bike up

this hill, and worried for school.
Summer has you in her long arms

still, and her permissiveness
seems natural. She goes on musing

in your ear of mushrooms, sprung
from sleepy lawns, demure

and shining in the late light, echoing
an early moon. Or of last Sunday,

foreign in a Baptist church,
when sudden angels trilled

their brilliant wings, and took you,
for the first time, from yourself.