Sunday, July 17, 2011

Epilogue (for the time being)

We’re beginning this epilogue (an epilogue for the time being, that is) on the 6th of July, 2011.

This is Brooke speaking. We are now well over half a year into our return home. The winter, of course, was rather difficult for all the reasons one can imagine. It was cold, hard to go outside; it was cold-and-flu season; it was hard for some of our caregivers to get here; and as you know from reading this account, adjusting to home life has been, well, somewhat traumatic. It was actually a lot easier than some people suggested it might be, but still a challenge. Also, the spring here has been hardly a spring at all, and because it rained almost every day it seemed during May and even parts of June, there wasn’t any of that rich sun that makes summer seem appealing.

“Now, though,” Brooke continues, “we’re beginning a summer routine that hopefully will last three or four months…”

Peggy interrupts. “What would the lama say?” she objects. “Why should we be worried about how long summer will last? Isn’t that to violate that basic Buddhist principle of living in the moment that we’ve found so deeply helpful in dealing with these difficult circumstances?--Don’t anguish over the past and what you’ve lost, don’t worry about the future and what hardships it might bring; just attend to what’s right here, right now.”

Brooke says, I’m looking through the trees. We’re sitting on the deck after dinner; the sky is just beginning to darken and a sliver of moon to brighten; there’s a robin on a branch in the tree above us, singing—even in the evening. The moon is almost halfway and is beginning to set to the west. That bird is still singing, though from a greater distance. The air is cooling—it must have been 90ยบ during the day today but always drops precipitously here at our elevation, almost a mile high, so it’s now cool and delicious. The bird sounds are coming from a distance. We have a hybrid maple in our yard planted by the previous occupant of this house probably fifty years ago; it has angled branches that evoke those of a Japanese painting, as if these branches had many elbows. The tree is old enough now to have lichen on it. When we bought this house thirty-four years ago, this hybrid maple was maybe 30 feet tall; it was young and energetic; it’s an old, matured tree now, with some dead branches among the green; we’re learning to like even these, because the squirrels and certain birds seem to love them.

Meanwhile the grapes are growing. You can’t hear the grapes growing, any more than you can see grass growing, but they are, growing in bunches. The pole beans planted a month or so ago have sprouted and are reaching early adolescence; they’ve just developed tendrils overnight that hook onto poles and allow them to careen upwards. It’s just past sunset here, but the clouds above are tinted pink in a way that Brooke says reminds him of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, not quite the one called ”God’s Grandeur” although that’s the point, a poem called “Pied Beauty” that goes something like “praised be dappled things.” Of course there are far more spectacular sunsets to occur here and elsewhere, and we’ve experienced many of these in distant places as well as here, but this one is spectacular to us. The lichen on the hybrid maple is somewhere between orange and brown, more brown as the light goes down, but it’s not the color that matters but the texture, something like an extremely soft cloth that covers some parts of some of the branches of this rare tree, one part in particular that stretches from the first crotch of the lower branches to just underneath the crown. We’re hearing the last of their songs before the birds retire for the night. The moon, a gibbous crescent, is being veiled by clouds.

We live on a corner where the public bus passes every half hour during the busy parts of the day (though in a comparatively comfortable residential district like this, almost no one ever takes it), and you can hear it coming by the sound of its engine. It runs along the street below our garden, and if it’s heading up towards the university and the university hospital it turns right. If it’s coming back, it comes up the hill below our house. It would be possible to find this bus irritating, but it is anything but irritating. It is regular; it is predictable. The bus is more like a creature--not like a squirrel exactly, but it takes on a certain creatureliness in its behavior. You can tell what’s it’s going to do. It’s because we are now more home-bound (as you might say) that we now notice the branches, the birds, the bus, the regular passersby who wave to us when we have breakfast on the front porch in the morning, or when there’s music playing in the garden in the evening.

This isn’t just any music. My colleague from the English Department, Howard Horwitz, together with Kent Lyngle, form a little combo called Gray Matters that plays gypsy-influenced music, including some of their own gypsy-flavored compositions. They like to practice for their various gigs in our back yard. The way we’ve reorganized it with a path so Brooke can get into the lower garden also forms a little sort of natural stage, and they play music that attracts neighbors and moves us with its exquisite mournfulness.

Here’s a view of the garden taken from our neighbor Mike Evertsen’s roof, when he was up there recently cleaning out his swamp cooler (making Peggy worry about the kinds of accidental falls that lead to situations like Brooke’s); you can imagine Howard and Kent wailing on the lower deck and Brooke and I and various caregivers and friends listening admiringly from the upper one, enjoying a good laugh once in a while.

Brooke talks about other evening in the garden: I like to tip back in my wheelchair and get a view of the world that I’ve never ever gotten before. Right now it’s very quiet; not even a branch stirring, though the gibbous moon-slice is brightening above. In the morning there will be birds and squirrels and way more wildlife than we ever thought inhabited our yard; they will all come out into the sunlight, except perhaps whatever eats our lettuce at night while the beans are busy growing.

On Candide. Candide repairs to his garden. Why not? We’ve done what we could in our lives and while we didn’t retire here from the despair of being unable to change the world, as Candide does, and indeed we don’t think of ourselves as retiring at all (Brooke is officially retired but Peggy is still working fulltime), sitting quietly in a garden is something we wouldn’t otherwise be doing if we could still be tracking around in fast-moving foreign countries, going to concerts and shows, being welcomed at dinner parties with people we enjoy. Life is different, and despite the fact that it has huge limitations and sometimes fierce pain, it also has its unexpected pleasures.

Al-Ghazali, the 11th-century Persian poet and philosopher, describes the Islamic view of paradise as a garden with green birds. The birds here aren’t green, though the magpies have some iridescent blue-green feathers along their backs and tails, and this is only a paradise for just a few fleeting moments on some particularly lustrous days, but there are moments now and then when a certain contentment pervades.

Now it is July 17, ten days or so since we first started this entry. This is Brooke writing, but Peggy will get to edit it. I won't sum up what has gone on over the past ten days except to say that there's been more progress in physical therapy, especially in the pool. But as always more progress and more strength means some days of pain that follow a difficult workout. That's pretty much been the rhythm: pain, progress, pain, pain, progress and progress, pain.

We have loads of family visiting over the next two weeks, which is why we'd like to write this now. I am about to teach my own final class of the early summer tomorrow, on Wordsworth's poem “Tintern Abbey.” This makes me both happy and sad at the same time, happy, because I love teaching the poem and can't wait to do so; sad, because my little poetry group will have to disband, and I might have to wait until nearly the end of September to teach again, a course I’m preparing for OSHER on the dazzling women of the Odyssey, you know, Calypso, Circe, Helen of Troy, Nausicaa, and of course the faithful Penelope. I am thinking, though, of asking anyone who is interested if they want to do a little set of group meetings this August on Shakespeare's sonnets. Obviously, I can't get enough of teaching.

Today a group of us took a hike, with me in the TrailRider, along the beautiful trail that goes south from the pass at Big Mountain. The flowers—columbine, lupen, penstemon, arnica, morning star, wild rose, and many many others--were absolutely lovely because the spring and early summer were so wet. You’ll see Ed Fisher and his son Joe in the first picture serving as sherpas for the TrailRider, together with Chris Horner and Dylan, the Fishers’ dog, but there were many others in the party: Michele Fisher in the background in the second picture, Polly Wiessner, Chris Jones holding up the TrailRider, Kirtly Jones, Julia the caregiver, and of course us, Peggy and Brooke. There were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak, the kind that appear in early summer and give little bites, but that didn't stop us from having a wonderful time. Now it is hot, and summer as really settled in, but we hope this photo from the trail will let you see where we’ve been. What a miracle, it seems, to be able to be there, out in this spectacular part of the natural world, when you can’t hike or walk and are still completely dependent on the kindness of others. When we reflect back on this whole journey, it’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to come as far as we have, even if this has been a long and often excruciatingly difficult road so far.

We will make this the last little chapter for a while. Our writing job is almost complete, as least for the time being; we’re settling in to life. It feels a milestone. (But keep checking; we may have to take up writing again sometime soon. And keep coming, calling, writing--we're settling in to life, but we absolutely still need all of you.)