We decided to kill it together, but I am the one who picked up the axe.
It being an old hedge that had once grown fifteen feet tall with stems as thick as my forearms, planted by the single, older woman who had resided here before us. She had stayed inside the house, storm windows secured even in the summer, blinds drawn, both doors double locked, and thirty more trees on the half-acre than we have now. She let her small dog have the run of the fenced yard, a dark place next to a crossroads.
We have taken down thirty trees, added gardens front, side and back, set down a brick walkway that rises and falls like waves and built stone walls that coil like these country roads — mowed, raked, painted, repaired, torn down and built up until it begins to resemble the home that, no matter what, will still recede before us into the future like Gatsby’s dream. It is home, drafty and small, but home, our anchor in a place where there are still fields, woods and birds.
But out there in the Republic, the vast states are filling up my dream life every day, rolling through it incessantly in the form of images and maps and whispers – “see this” it hums and “look over there” and “all the way down here, listen.”
In the heart of my sheaf of cash and licenses and cards, I keep a handwritten list of books I want to read and places I want to visit – the Sand Hills in Sheridan County, Nebraska; Wolf Point on the Missouri in Northeastern Montana; the Yaak valley in the far northwestern Montana; the Flint Hills Grasslands in Oklahoma and Kansas; the Hill Country of Texas; and while I am there, maybe Loving County, the emptiest place in America; perhaps, farther afield, wild seas and plains in Greece and a return to Scotland, to the Highlands and its empty blue-heather valleys and the Grampian Mountains and Ben Nevis.
So, a zero-one, yes-no life — fly or stay, roam or hunker down?
But in here, after the stump has been torn out and the plot weeded, we will plant big sprays of Coneflowers, Butterfly Flower and Coreopsis and Mexican Sunflowers. The house will need repainting soon – another coat of white with mica flecks this time — when the morning sun strikes, it will flare like the water in a desert oasis, a flash amidst the green of big trees.
But this too is here — a kind of sickening fluorescent dread hangs onto every news story at this moment — a homicidal ISIS in Iraq, Ebola in West Africa, a revanchist Russia; a pitilessly cynical Hamas, dead children and an Israel that defends itself and brutalizes its ideals simultaneously; 150,000 dead in Syria; desperate children crossing the borders in Texas and Arizona; African elephants threatened with complete annihilation by 2020; a United State increasingly unable to govern itself. Talk of a personal life seems frivolous, even offensive, as if we should all be with the Kurds in Erbil with a Kalashnikov in hand or finding some tangible way to lessen the wide-open suffering on a splintered, bleeding earth.
Health Workers attached to Doctors Without Borders in West Africa
I do not know how to reconcile all of this push and pull. When does a personal life become a luxury? When, if ever, do private dreams become superfluous?
Another friend, a year and a half younger than me, recently had a heart attack in a hotel bathroom at a ski resort in Vermont. In a tone of wonderment, he said that the entire time the paramedics had been keeping him alive, he had been aware of everything. He had heard their conversations and questions and the commands they had put to him. He had been looking down at their forms kneeling next to his body. Yet, he could not open his eyes. He could not move his fingers. He kept saying to himself, “I’ve had a heart attack! How is that possible? How can this be happening?”
We all end the same, but what are we to do before this most prized awareness goes black? Tend our microscopic junctions on the planet, or balance our desires with responsibilities – how does one achieve balance in what feels like an ominous moment in History? As if, as Americans, we are flying before the storm, watching the lightning strike just behind us. Or are we meant to find a path through to a forceful commitment against cruelty, no matter one’s age?
I do not know the answer.
But I do know that I know in my marrow that time is streaming past me. Each morning in the quiet I feel its tidal urgency, its impatience.
Today, I will go to the unfinished wall and lift and place rocks again. I will walk through the shade of the trees and happily watch the dogs running in their brilliant innocence. I will go back to the stump and throw my body against it again and again until I have wiped away, just for a time, my troubling thoughts.