As the Dog Sleeps

There have been several dreams, most a form of wish fulfillment, even that in which I walked across the room to hold him and found a skeleton under his clothes. The physicality of this I still feel when awake. It is no unforgettable sensation, wrapping your arms around bones.

In waking life I have spent half a lifetime holding men who needed to be held, but I cannot save him now, nor could I ever.

Some years later the dreams arrive less frequently, but after their return last night I wonder how the sleeping brain can recall a person’s smallest mannerisms and micro expressions. To forget would be lovely.

Furthermore, until I woke this morning I did not know that I was still angry. At who? This is what I have sat upon all day.

This morning, in the still-dim dawn I found that the Aloneness I have worked so hard to keep at bay had returned. Early filtered light silhouetted the room, revealing all the possessions that we as humans collect to make our lives comfortable–to feel safe and significant–but even then I began my Sunday weeping, loudly, into my pillow. The dog slept in the corner and the sun continued to rise and time passed as time does.

Must we feel what needs to be felt for grief to work itself out of us? Reluctantly, yes. Not one of us differs in this way and if nothing else there is solace in that.

I write this the same day as the morning it happened and will feel silly for such melancholic contemplation once it is Monday and I am again reading the news and stirring my coffee.

Yes, to forget would be lovely – but while we are wishing that something never happened we can also stay actively hopeful, because this remains a constant: life unfolds and time passes and the dog sleeps and the sun rises and a sliver of the mind says there are new memories to be made.

(written Easter Sunday 2019 after a bad dream)

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Two Swans

The days shorten, the nights arrive sooner now. I find myself dreaming about what it might be like to see him again. I would walk into the room and from a distance we would lock eyes, approach each other, I might press my face into his neck as he did the same, two swans bowing into one another in recognition, in a ceremony of forgiveness of past transgressions. His and mine.

In my dream he is a picture of health, of athleticism – the way I remember him during our early days. In my dream he has been off drugs for several years now, has struggled to find his way back but has finally made a life for himself. A life I can return to and immerse myself in.

“Where have you been?” he asks, as if I am the one who left so many years ago, but the gentleness in his tone acknowledges he had been absent long before I pushed myself from the couch that last night.

“I’m here now.”

My limbs are around his shoulders, my fingers graze the hair at the nape of his neck.

“I’ve missed you.” It is all I can say.

In this thick, tangible closeness there is no kiss, there are no undertones as in so many other dreams, but there is the simple, loving bowing into one another. As I move to rest my forehead against his shoulder I remember that the warmth on my face is not another human, but a cotton pillowcase in a floral pattern of beige and white. It is my own breath, my own skin, against my own bedding. He is dead.

He has been dead now for three weeks.

***

I dreamed once more: of being horseback, of loping across uncut fields, deep green at the start of spring, grasses pushed in rhythmic waves by the wind. The horse rocks in even stride, the rider in perfect balance, the pleasure of movement that in waking life comes only rarely. Perhaps like coasting downhill on a bicycle as a child.

When I awoke I wanted to be a child again.

(Summer 2016)

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Oceans and Lakes

The impending ocean announces itself in a way that lakes do not. I’ve seen more lakes than I’ve cared to count lately; mountain lakes and manmade lakes and reservoirs and the always strange and briny Mono Lake. Rarely do these still and scentless bodies of water give you a heads up that they are there (particularly if you’re not a map watcher). You often must come within sight of their waters before you think, “Look at that, there’s a lake here.”

But the ocean is for the devout, in that you do not have to see or hear it to know it is there. Our body senses its existence. The atmosphere changes, the wind blows a new way through the car window and the air weighs more heavily around your being. It begins to smell like water—powerful, unconstrained saltwater—from many miles away. It speaks to us.

Be wild here, says the Northern ocean, and I am bundled up and unruly, flipping shells and jumping rocks and peering into every tide pool.

Relax, says the Southern ocean, and I am under the sun and into a book, my purple-patterned towel spread across hot sand.

Somewhere between these two cultures a wooden pier juts out and divides north from south. Once used for shipping, a bait shop now draws in a steady population of quiet fisherman who, in turn, pull a population of gulls who keep a close eye on the day’s catch.

I keep a close eye on the ocean. I am a girl who grew up near water, a girl who took many childhood trips to the marina with her parents, and whose father owned a sailboat, a power boat and  a handful of smaller boats – not all of which I can recall, but I’m sure I counted at least two canoes sitting in our yard before I’d turned 21. I know this as I sold them after my father passed away. A man of Native American descent named Tomas came to buy them one afternoon, carrying them away from the grassy slope where they rested upside down, and that is as far as my memory goes as it has been many years – and because the mind is funny about what it chooses to remember.

And as I am a girl raised near water, one day after weeks in the deserts and mountains of inland states the ocean was a welcome sight and sound and smell. There I stood at the shore knowing that a handful of hours south these same waters were breaking against San Diego, and three days north they would filter into the Puget Sound and swell much more gently alongside my hometown, Seattle. This realization is akin to looking up at the moon at night to know that you and someone you miss and maybe love are both under the same sky, except we are both—we are all—not only under a moon, but along this shore. Connected by currents, all types of them, both water and human.

(written summer 2014; revised for ColetteKay.com)

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Ferrying to Nanaimo

The Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay ferry crossing is long at nearly 3 hours and 43.5 miles (70 km). We readied to leave the mainland and I stood at the bow, alone until an elderly couple appeared beside me, all of us interested in the sweeping views at hand. I offered to take their photo; they took mine in return. We began to chat.

Sean and Sarah hailed from Scotland and were traveling the USA as many retirees do. It turned out the three of us had been on the same road all summer, mostly national parks and destination cities in the American West. Somehow our trio had ended up here, together, on board a Canadian ferry now slowly pulling away from its dock.

I remember these two so clearly because Sean shared a resonating truth: the more you travel, the more it takes for the next place to stand out. Instead of inspiring awe, new cities and landscapes begin to feel redundant.  What would appear beautiful in fresh eyes instead produces an “oh, that’s nice” humdrum response.

I imagine others have shared in this experience. A flight attendant friend once alluded to feeling similar dismay as she flew between (the world’s most exciting) international cities. To fight boredom she began creating missions in each destination, carrying out tasks prompted by friends. During her stay in London I sent her to Harrod’s to purchase strawberry black tea; it gave meaning to her trip.

But, on occasion a particular landscape can stun even the most weathered traveler, and this has more to do with coming home than venturing abroad. Sean had been right – but he had not made note of the enduring appreciation a person can carry for their native region. An appreciation that leaves us seeing our home region with the same fresh eyes we used when we were first traveling.

That day on the ferry I did not tire of the Pacific Northwest views but instead spent the trip’s three hours topside, cold winds tangling my hair and pushing aggravated tears from my eyes, full of life and reverence as I breathed the biting Northern ocean air once again.

(originally written in 2015; excerpt revised for ColetteKay.com)

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Early Morning in Maine

How is it we can miss what we never had? Looking out to a northern ocean flecked with islands, the day’s light a brooding one and the sloop’s sails tucked away at rest, I acknowledge it happens but had not found words to make sense of it until now. Some things we know how to say; others we only feel.

Very early on a summer day the sun rose over Belfast, among the quietest of Maine’s coastal towns. Staying alone in a single-room cottage on the shore, not much effort nor time was needed to walk to the water. I only had to roll over – and over – until I’d rolled enough that I was no longer in the bed. Moments and slip-on shoes later, standing at the water’s edge the horizon mirrored still-dim morning light.

No one walked the beach at this hour, other than a man several yards down. He kept to himself atop a boulder, reading a book. I wonder when I spot a fellow solitary human: Are they like me?

Among general populations I don’t believe many are. How many times have I been drawn to these off-the-beaten-path destinations—in which I think other people should also want to spend time—to find I am the only one there? I have lost count.

Sometimes I’ll reach a nowhere-type place and find one or two strangers also present, and can’t help but romanticize the idea that they might be my (long sought after) mirror. Something within them must be the same something within me that brought us both here at the same time? The most rational sliver of my brain registers this as coincidence, yet I continue to agnostically follow magnets that push and pull and lead me to see signs when, in retrospect, there were none.

Don’t we all want to live this way? Isn’t seeing signs the same as having hope, and isn’t hope the most valuable possession of all?

Often, I hold to the idea that someone is out there, like me, standing on an empty shore or the side of a mountain or driving a little nothing of a country road, half stuck inside their memories and half wondering if another human is doing the same thing they are and thinking the same thoughts that they are thinking at that very moment.

If so: I have been missing you, without having had you, all this time.

(first written September 8, 2018)

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Harriett’s Nest

The backyard hummingbirds have been fighting lately and I’ve been sitting under the honeysuckle listening to their mating wars rage on. It’s surprising how maddened animals become as they follow the drive to reproduce.

Among the hummingbirds are an assortment of others who inhabit the nearby trees and sky. In the summer the mockingbird keeps everyone up at inopportune hours of the night, and a flock of out-of-place parakeets circles around the house once or twice a year (perhaps more often, but I do not constantly stand on the front stoop watching for their green wings to come into view). A hawk hunts in the canyon two blocks away; I have seen him resting on the lower railings of the wooden bridge, have been startled as he swooped in front of me mid-day and have photographed him in the branches of the eucalyptus tree.

Doves and pigeons, the common and dull kind but I feel a liking for them anyway, line up on telephone wires year-round. They look most striking with their silhouettes outlined against morning fog, which from my front door that looks out to the bay I can see approaching as early as the night before it rolls in (it is the foggy mornings and sunless marine layer days that most facilitate my writing; at these times I feel closest to myself).

There is an owl that silently haunts the night, who I have seen only twice in three years and who is so without sound, so fleeting, I could have just as easily imagined him. Yesterday a gull drifted above our roof.

There are, finally, many small birds who live here and, in looking enough like each other, are often disregarded given many people’s preference for hawks and herons and greater birds. Often, perching birds (as naturalists call them) are grouped together in our minds as the uncelebrated “birds in the yard” because truly what difference does it make if they are a finch or a nuthatch or a wren? To most of us, like air they are simply there and like breathing they simply happen.

But not Harriett, a small bird of what species I do not know, but in one season of her life (and mine) managed to add to my melancholy and then, after she was gone she unknowingly (because of course, she is a bird) lent me hope.

I will begin by saying that at some point Harriett died, or so I assume because one day she stopped coming back. She had spent several days collecting twigs for her nest which I know because I walked out onto my stoop last year and caught her in the process of it all. I had told this news of a new nesting bird to my family (it was my sister who named her Harriett) and friends who don’t mind such trivial life updates, and for a while we waited for babies.

But Harriett disappeared and babies never came, and at the end of her nesting season I had only that…a nest. An empty house of sticks in the corner of the beams above my door. And not too long after, when the summer garden ended and the lettuce had bolted and become no good and the tomatoes turned brown and barren there suddenly wasn’t much life at all outside my door, and the fall and winter were no better.

Spring came late and quietly this year and I put off gardening and considered skipping it altogether, for what reason I can’t quite say because I certainly had the time, but I recall wondering what is the point as we do to ourselves here and there when melancholy, while beautiful in small doses, grows too big and becomes too heavy to carry. It is hard to move under such weight.

At such points we can actively seek help, or we can let time do what it does: pass and heal. Through that winter I had chosen to lie submissive and dormant while the days moved by me. During those months of long nights, time roughly stitched me back together in places that had come apart. It was not a perfect fix, and by spring it was not enough to inspire a garden, but it was enough to keep going. Sometimes this is all we can ask for. To want to wake up: this alone is worth our quiet gratitude.

Then, hope: I stood at the door this past week and looked up to see tail-feathers sticking out over the edge of the beams. When I moved closer she flew to a nearby tree and watched and waited for me to go so she could return to her adopted nest – the one Harriett left behind, still unused. So it seems that, despite an unusually long and numb winter, we have been given another chance at eggs becoming baby birds and seeds becoming gardens and life beginning again.

(first written April 25, 2018; revised for ColetteKay.com)

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Open Road Therapy

In the book Roads by Larry McMurtry (author of Lonesome Dove), he writes:

“Being alone in the car is to be protected for a time from the pressures of day-to-day life; it’s like being in one’s own time machine, in which the mind can rove ahead to the future or scan the past.”

While this quote might best apply to road-trippers, I also find McMurtry’s sentiment to apply to everyday driving – to and from work, to the grocery and so on. There is something therapeutic about the way being alone in a car temporarily turns off the socially-constructed spotlight we constantly perform in. We become fleetingly able to experience our own internal dialogue, our own humanity, without interruption. I would even guess that most of us are more similar to each other during these moments of aloneness than we are when we’re back in the spotlight.

Five years back, during 52 almost-consecutive days on the road, I split my time evenly between the deserts and forests of the American West and British Columbia. Enough time in either environment can cause the mind to wander, and I wonder about the contemplative thoughts such empty stretches of road have incubated for others? I find answers, often questions, occasional forgiveness and by the end of the day a tiredness that folds me into bed and allows me to give in to life as it is, and to myself as I am. After a day of driving the mind does not ask why nor how nor am I enough. It evaluates when energy exists to be burned.

(first written July 6, 2015; revised for ColetteKay.com)

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