The mystery of the water; being always lost within it, in what can only be thought of as labyrinth. Alluring wrong turns and dead-ends, retracings and decipherments intricating every journey.
Fog on the canals late at night. A city already unreal partly erased.
The edgy masked and cloaked figures in wait, alone, outside the lighted doorway of a shop, ahead of you, unmoving, as you enter an otherwise deserted alley. Mannequins—or not? The confraternity of Carnivale.
The delight of finding something, suddenly, of looking up and finding yourself unexpectly just where you had wanted to be.
The bell to welcome the morning. A low bell tolling, steadily, on and on, at first light. As if summoning you from dreams, or in warning: acqua alta, mass, a birth or death.
A boat piled high with bags of linens from one of the canalside
hotels, spilling out a skein of sheets.
Glass beads, gilded or milky, like a rosary of quiet pleasures.
Though I lose mine somewhere among the Etruscans later, the idea of them is with me, slipping through my fingers; the ghost of them in an earlier picture.
Vivaldi in a chill palazzo, with the usual elaborately painted
ceilings high above our chairs, escaping the reaches of the dim old electric lights. Being let in oddly a few at a time, to climb the flights of stone stairs to where the instruments are set out for the concert. The tickets I have ordered from across the world allow this view back, to another age. Vivaldi where he lived and taught. The music at its source; a spring, welling. But there are concerts everywhere—Vivaldi in every church on every piazza.
At the Ca d’Oro, on a great stone balcony above the Grand Canal, the grumpy stone lion with a big raindrop hanging on its chin.
Below the mesa lie the ruins of the potters’ school.
The painting, or the tooth she needed to have pulled?
They drove up Canyon Road through blinding snow to buy piñon kindling from Jesus.Or from his son, José, Rose said, clearing the windshield with her oversized mitten; she thought she’d heard that Jesus moved to Albuquerque.
Late in the afternoon the fishing boat drops them on the island of the lepers.
She had become fascinated with the idea of young galaxies.
At the top of all the ladders, on a reddish sandstone ledge outside the cave, a weathered man older than Mandy’s father sat crosslegged like an Indian fakir, playing Norwegian Wood on a flute.
She followed Jess and Alex back to the station from the old stone winery, laughing delightedly at the tipsy meandering of the rented bikes along the rutted road as they tried to avoid the holes and fallen apricots.
One January Saturday they found a small abandoned cottage in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and just two weeks later she left him.
The heirloom roses moved with her from Massachusetts to Hawai’i.
The archaeologists had been gone from that mountaintop for ninety-four years, and the elements had again covered over everything they’d uncovered.
She’s stunned that her new MacBook beats her resoundingly at chess.
Tobie’s divine revelation came during the sing-along Messiah.
For Mandy the giant pinecone was the absolute last straw.
The transvestite has a big hole in her fishnet stocking.
The bus to The Cloisters passes slowly through Harlem.
The fire hoses erupt like geysers into the Chicago River.
She’d become obsessed with Ursula and the ten thousand virgins of Cologne.
I’m sick all night. I’ve picked up some bacteria and take it home with me, like picking up a stranger in a bar, a lizard-handed salesman in a hotel bar in Reno or Fort Worth maybe, and spend a night of groaning intimacy with the clammy dead-white orifice of the toilet. A dissipated night, against my nature. I crave sleep, but am reawakened every hour or so by the persistent stranger who has invaded my body and runs those wheedling fingers down my stomach literally ad nauseum, raising goosebumps.
I’m over being sick by morning, but can’t get myself back. It’s like waking blank, and realizing, first, that you’re badly hungover, and then, worse, that you don’t recognize the room. I want to be home, but I don’t know how to get there. And it’s going to take a long time even to sit up, with the room moving like that, in a big gray sideways spin (like being inside the barrel of a cement mixer). I lie down again, crushed by the enormity of having lost not just the night, but big well-loved old things: simple normality, and all of me.
In the afternoon the poppies are so hot, candent, their soul-bared color hurts my eyes. I can’t look at them. I can hardly even manage walking. I walk as if I were old, planning every step. The very air chafes my skin as I push against it.
But when I come back outside several hours later, having had iced ginger ale and Advil and slept until evening on my softest, twenty-year-old sheets, the sun is off the poppies and they’ve closed for the night, wing-like now, chaste, like so many butterflies lighted, poised at the possibility of flight. What sun is left comes obliquely over the gate, from the street beyond, like a kind of hush. The world is cool and serene and has accepted me back. I lift my hair off my still-sweaty neck, feeling the coolness like a grandmother’s passing kiss.
Against the weathered old fence is the iris that bloomed just yesterday, sponging up the last of the sun. It’s an iridescent pinkish lilac with a heart of buttery cinnamon-sugar, astonishingly perfect as a plate in an old Renaissance herbal, its colors mixed from beaten gold leaf, pigments, resins. Two blooms are open, with four yet to come. Perhaps lighter than varnish even, the sheen is of Roman glass, curving up into long graceful iris-shaped flasks maybe for perfume. There’s a slightly darker lip of stain around the ruffled outer edge of the limp petals like pooling watercolors or ink, washed across lightly in the middle, thicker where the color slows and stops, caught by the contour, by the hilling up of the translucent tissue.
I’ve thrown on Cherokee blue jeans with buttoned cargo pockets, my favorite gray sweater, the torn moccasins I garden in. I stand in the cool evening without aching, released from the earlier weight of the air, and water absolutely everything in the garden with the finest spray that’s in the nozzle until everything, every single leaf and bud and twig and airborne tendril, is hung with tiny drops of spray like seed pearls.
The wind comes again, down the sunlit morning pastures. The field moves around the horse where he is tethered, all around him, travelling west.
Only the fragile old Japanese paper lanterns in the front window are still, serene. I admire their serenity.
I read about words and names in my friend Charlotte's book on Huna. "In the word is life, in the word, death."
Words carry spiritual as well as mundane meanings. Names, inoa, tell of the owner's nature and destiny. A name is itself a living thing, carrying mana, determining events, healing or harming. Words are capable of altering reality. The proper use and order of words is essential in prayer, so prayer will—as I have willed it—take flight.
I study words in the Hawaiian dictionary, interspersed with red New England leaves. I learn that there are at least twenty-seven kinds of prayer. One is the octopus prayer. I learn the word for the larvae of dragonflies, used ceremonially as an offering. I learn the words that mean suspended in the air, as clouds; to travel in the mountains; the track of a god.
And feathers, then. Hulu means feather or plumage, and also esteemed, precious. "It's used of esteemed older relatives, and this meaning may be connected with the high value attached to featherwork." Lele is flight, to fly, to cause to fly (or wind-blown, said of rain); also a sacrificial altar or stand. Surely the one where the flowers and shells had been laid. A place from which prayers fly to the gods. The feather offering I’ve made intuitively, walking at the Temple on the Hill of the Whale, has been exactly right. (A spray of feathers, brilliant black and white—part of a wing, a bird's wing, or the wing itself. I pick it up and gingerly carry it back to the platform of offerings under the war temple. To give my prayer flight. Continuing life.)
Without Vs I can't write evil, invasion. But nor can I write avian, reverence, live.
I spend an afternoon among the ancient fishponds, green with reflections, with the trees they drink in. Elsewhere I see the many beautiful woods, made into graceful bowls. Hawaiian ash, silver oak, mountain apple, sugi pine.
I learn that the house above the Temple on the Hill of the Whale, the house of King Kamehameha’s son-in-law and advisor, the British seaman, was held together with a mortar made of sand, burnt coral, poi, and hair.
I stop at the two long waterfalls on my way back from Hilo, where I'd gone looking for the red Japanese bridge and the women who used to come with nets to catch little shrimp in the shallows early in the morning, when I was there with my father.
Continuing life. The prayer I have sent upward, into flight. The prayer I piece together from all of the found words.
—Christie, September 2001, from Inoa, winner, Dorothy Churchill Cappon Award for the Essay, New LettersVolume 71 No. 2 (winter 2005)
On one particularly dark day back in the Bush Era, when it was clear that things were only going to get worse, our writing group was greatly heartened by this story about poet James Merrill and a transformative green scooter.
James Merrill wrote in his memoir, A Different Person (1993), about visiting a doctor about his depression, saying that he didn't know how to live or how to love, he just knew how to write a poem. The doctor, he said, "listened closely, then acted with undreamed-of kindness and dispatch. 'Come with me,' he said, in a flash ushering me out of his downtown office and onto the back seat of a smart little pale-green motorscooter. I put my arms, as instructed, about his stout, gray-suited person, and off we went in sunlight, through traffic, under trees, past architecture, over the muddy river to lunch." (The Writer’s Almanac, 3/3/3)
Our hope is that this collection of writing will give readers the same je ne sais quois that brief but immense lunchtime voyage gave us—encouragement for going on; inspiration to do something simply good for ourselves each ordinary day; a smile; a moment of respite or recognition; time out from global numbing; a pause for weirdness, wonder, and delight. We want to share what gives us pleasure or some keener satisfaction putting down as well as picking up.
So hop on the green scooter with us. Read and be well.