Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Eyes - March 24 / Day 83

I finally finished Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which I’d originally reviewed here. When I wrote that review, I had read only the first half of the book. Now that I’ve finished the entire thing, I’m still thinking about it. Wave is a book you read slowly, then spend a long time processing.

Red ruffled

At first glance, Wave is a memoir of Deraniyagala’s experience losing her parents, husband, and sons in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, but the book struck me as being several memoirs in one: or, more accurately, a memoir that recounts the cyclic and spiraling cycles of grief. Grief isn’t something you get over, as if life after loss could ever be the same again. Wave describes the way in which grief goes through its own seasons. In the first half of Wave, Deraniyagala is beside herself with sorrow, harassing the tenants who move into her deceased parents’ house and endlessly Googling ways to kill herself. In the first half of Wave, you aren’t sure whether Deraniyagala is going to make it: yes, her body survived the tsunami that claimed her kin, but will she survive the aftermath of that maddening loss, body and soul?

Dreams of trees

There is no clear dividing line between the first half of the book and the second: there is no clear corner that Deraniyagala turns. But in the latter parts of the book, the focus seems to shift from what Deraniyagala lost to what she shared with her husband, sons, parents, and the friends who remain by her side as reconstructs a life after unspeakable loss. Gradually, the book isn’t about a wave of destruction but a swelling surge of remembrance.

Masked

There are parts of the latter half of the book–most memorably, an account of a whale-watching excursion in the very ocean that swallowed Deraniyagala’s family–that are hauntingly beautiful, with Deraniyagala longing for her husband, Steve, and sons, Vik and Malli, who she feels should be on the boat watching whales with her:

I shouldn’t be on this boat, I thought, as I nibbled on a ginger biscuit to stop feeling seasick. Vik never got to see a blue whale. I shouldn’t be out searching for whales when Vik can’t. It will be agony without him. I’ll have hell to pay.

Tree shadow

Deraniyagala will have hell to pay, indeed: how can you do things alone that your lost family would have loved to have done with you? And yet on the whale-watching boat, Deraniyagala discovers that she is never alone. Not only are there whales, as blue and enormous as the sky, gliding through the water beneath her, but the persistence of memory means that Steve, Vik, and Malli are somehow gone but never far away:

As the first blow of a whale was sighted, our boat speeded up, and I was in our living room in London. Vik and I on the red sofa watching The Blue Planet. I could hear him catch his breath as two blue whales appear on the screen, impossibly huge even as the aerial camerawork dwarfs them in an infinite ocean. He twists his hair faster and faster as they cruise and dive.

Tree shadow

Whales are huge and mysterious, easily inviting awe. As much as Deraniyagala cannot stand seeing whales without her husband and sons, she experiences a moment of tranquility and calm in the presence of these huge, aquatic beasts: creatures who live in the very element that proved to be so deadly.

Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.

There is something inexpressibly beautiful in Deraniyagala’s description of remembering her dead family while listing to whales breathe: a moment both intimate and awesome. I felt a bit guilty for finding spots of beauty in an otherwise harrowing story, but perhaps that is what made Deraniyagala’s memoir so memorable. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human life is fragile, but that survivors are so resilient, and a cruel world is somehow so beautiful. Perhaps the greatest shock of grief isn’t that human bodies pass away but that love never dies.