Friday, October 19, 2007


I am learning to swim.

Except I think my body already knows. It’s the oddest feeling, one of the oddest I’ve ever had.

Let me explain.

For reasons too tedious to go into, I don’t like putting my face in the water but I love to swim. How do I do it? My ex husband taught me, 23 years ago now, to do a basic lifesaving stroke. It’s a bit like being an enormous frog—but between that and back stroke and simply keeping my head out of the water whatever I’m doing I’ve swum an awful lot over the past twenty years. I like it—it makes me feel as no other exercise does.

Let me explain, too, that for most of my life people have assumed I’m a swimmer. They take one look at my broad shoulders and exclaim it—as if swimming grew shoulders and not the other way around. And I guess I am a swimmer, of sorts. I’ve swum at all times of day or night—in empty pools, hot pools, fast pools, crowded pools, pools where they forget to turn on the lights. I’ve swum in pools outside in winter in Colorado, with steam rising off the water and snow falling on me and the water warm as a bath. I’ve swum where the Dallas Cowboys train (and learned what “fast pool” means). I’ve not swum in the ocean, much, or in lakes—and I swim not just for exercise but to hatch myself out of myself, to enter an entirely new place.

People complain about swimming. It’s too much trouble—changing, getting wet, showering, changing again—but all that’s the part that captivates me. It’s an initiation. A transformation. An entering. Sometimes swimming for me is difficult, if I’ve not done it in a long time and I’m out of shape, if I’m swimming next to a triathlete who’s been freestyling through the water for an hour already, if I’m feeling particularly embarrassed about my enormous frog stroke. When I’m out of shape I give myself a certain amount of time in the water—and the promise simply to move in it for that long, without stopping. Swimming for me comes back quickly—in a week I can double my time, in a month I can swim for an hour.

And each time, no matter what, the transformation. I change. I relax. The water, the movement, the exertion, the struggle all feel natural. Despite my awkwardness, I feel at home.

But still I am embarrassed. I don’t feel that my swimming is real swimming, and that is what I wish I could do: the forward crawl, freestyle, that on-your-belly graceful sleek cut-through-the-water stroke that everyone—except me and the old ladies—seems born knowing.

I am learning to swim.

I’ve had two lessons with Beth, my instructor. Beth is positive and happy and a mom, and unlike some previous instructors who treat me like glass seems instead to intuit an inner toughness and pushes me accordingly. Did I mention I’ve had two lessons? Within the first thirty minutes of the first lesson, I was swimming freestyle.

Not breathing well and panicking a lot but, still. Swimming.

The funny thing is, I’ve never done it and yet I knew how. Beth tells me to get in the water and swim freestyle without breathing for as far as I can and when I come up, three quarters of the pool later, I feel glorious. I feel transported. I feel fast and streamlined and sexy and long and strong as if I’m possessed by something that knows how to fly. Beth is amazed. She tells me I’m perfect—my stroke, my kick, my form. She tells me I’m fast, clearly without even trying to be fast. She tells me I have great lung capacity. She tells me that I already know the hard strokes people struggle with—my enormous frog turns out to be an almost-perfect breast stroke, my back stroke is wonderful. I have good upper body strength and a strong pull. She tells me that once I get comfortable breathing there’ll be no stopping me.

No stopping me? What do I do with this? I am far too used to my limitations. Far too comfortable with not knowing how. When I get good at things I run from them—this blog, people, places, jobs. But I’m coming to realize that maybe there are some things that I can’t escape. That are, instead, built into my bones and etched into my soul, that come from some other place. Inborn, inescapable things: the gift of writing, the gift of getting along, the gift of sensitivity, the gift of understanding dogs, the gift of my smile—and now, the gift of swimming.

I’ve been cataloging gifts the universe has given me. This week, I can see a little bit the gifts I send out into the world. That are inevitable parts of me. That are the pieces of who I am. My knowledge of them feels clumsy, the controls and filters are unfamiliar, they tumble out into the open and expose me.

My world is transformed.

I am swimming.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Bizarre doings down at the dock today. The water was high, dark and murky, and in it I saw a big group of something—aquatic critters—swimming in a tight, frantic circle, around and around like you see sardines doing in those TV shows about the ocean. At first I thought—ridiculously—they were squid, then maybe fat enormous tadpoles, nine or so inches long—but every so often one would veer off sideways, its flank flashing gold in the gloomy sunlight, advertising itself as “fish.”


Yesterday, a friend and strategy consultant met me for a personal session to help me focus my business. What he taught me went far beyond that; what he gave me is an enormous gift. It was one of those spectacular occasions when I learned things that shifted my perspective and thinking entirely, opening new pathways and possibilities, nudging me into epiphanies and insights. He fed me full of sparkly, alluring, solid ideas, ones I don’t yet fully understand—but with which I’m already making my own tangential explorations and connections.

I’m left exhausted and fairly delirious.

Today I’ve simply been quivering. Finally I took myself and the dog for a walk in the gray, damp cool of the afternoon. Humidity slapped us around pretty thoroughly. The woods were quiet and wet, green and brown and yellow with early-turning leaves. And at the dock I saw this frantic school of insane fish, swimming in their frenetic circles.

Nature mirroring my own mind.


I think these fish are Atlantic menhaden—sort of like herrings—“the breadbasket of the Chesapeake Bay.” They are, apparently, devoured and relished by everything, sharks and osprey and humans.

I watched the circling for a while. It was like an object itself, not individual fish but one large seething mandala of scales and cold flesh. When the school swam too far down in the dark depths sometimes all I could see were flashes of individual fish and wrinkles on the water. Like messages from the darkness, really. Or the occasional coherent thought. Or the flash of insight when you suddenly know the thing that you feel is right, socketing into the place it belongs in your heart and mind.

We walk home through the dim woods, watching the darkness collect in the undergrowth. I am on the edge of a bigger way of living and feeling, the dog is chasing rabbits, and the summer is dying. Startling gold leaves flash in the gloom. Nature is steadfast and determined and inexorable. On a daily basis, unless you remember to look closely, she seems unchanged--it is only over the course of weeks or months that you notice asters beginning to bloom, red leaves skimming the creek, nuthatches flying south, ospreys leaving. This seasonal time is unerring, ceaseless, flowing like water gently wearing down the year. And, if I try very hard to let go, I can step into this current of long time and feel it press me down into its longer view, a more fluid connection with what I know and what I learn.

I had no knowledge of the menhaden until I saw them today. Yet now they and their frantic silver circling and flashy schooling are a permanent part of my woods and creek.


Menhaden return, seasonally, to the ocean to breed. At night I will lie in bed and wonder where they are, what they are doing, out in the depths of the bay. I will imagine their tight circle unraveling, untying, and their silvery watery slipperiness streaming back into the bay’s saltiness and from there back to the ocean. And I will be soothed by knowing they are simply there, doing what they do, making my own world deeper and richer.

The gifts my friend gave me yesterday are most valuable because of the giving—making them now mine to ponder and study and absorb into my own way of being and living. And so, as I fall into sleep, I will also imagine all my new, shiny nourishing epiphanies slowing and slipping and streaming away with the fish, falling into their own seasonal cycling of breeding and feeding in the ocean of heart and soul. And I will be soothed by knowing they are simply there, doing what they do, making my own world deeper and richer.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


I have a bathtub—large. It is next to a window. Outside my window this evening---the dusky blue of twilight, the vegetable silhouette of an oak, an insistent bird, calling in the darkness.

I am held by the web of the world.

Outside my front door, as the darkness comes to its whistle, the winged creatures begin to arrive.

I want to tell you about a winged creature I lived with once. His name was Marty. Marty was a screech owl, injured somehow and now missing a wing. He could never again live in the wild, and the group I volunteered with was rehabilitating him to use in educational programs. This meant he needed to get used to people and to being handled---he needed to get as domesticated as a wild raptor ever can get. So for a summer, Marty lived in our house.

Marty was tiny, as screech owls are—only eight or nine inches tall. He puffed himself up like a small melon when he was defensive but he seemed to prefer making himself tall and lean and whippy instead, like a thin lead pipe, and glaring at us out of slitty yellow eyes. During the day he stayed on his perch in the living room and at night he slept in the basement. He would clutch his perch with one talon and his dinner in the other---a dead half rat, or a frozen mouse, that we brought him from the freezer.

At night, alone in the basement, Marty would call. His tremulous, wavering notes would find their echoing way up through the air conditioning vents and into my room. To my twenty-year-old mind he sounded unceasingly lonely, a proud, vigilant, dangerous bird whose life had fallen into chaos and confusion.

I’m not sure he ever got used to people.

I am late finishing this—it has been a difficult week. I’ve thought quite a bit about Marty, about his lovely and mournful calls in the night, about how the loss of his wing meant that he could never again survive in his native habitat. Was he lucky that we’d found him and saved him from death by coyote or fox? Or would he rather not have had to adjust to the impossible panic of a human world?

More importantly, is there something that we as humans have inside us that is as important, as irrevocable, as wings?


Watch any winged creature—its envied flight, its seeming joy at being airborne, its graceful dance along thermals, through woodlands, over the tops of meadows, windborne and free. We’ve wanted to fly since we could scratch our desires onto the walls of caves—and we do, to some extent—we can mimic the sense of freedom and space that birds, bats, butterflies, insects all must experience. And yet we are fine without wings, where winged creatures are dependent upon theirs. Can any of them survive flightless? I cannot think of one…

And so—the wing. What is our wing? What part of us, if removed, would banish us from the world as we know it?

As I said, it has been a difficult week. I’ve been thrown into a cauldron of fear and stress, a place where I can barely breathe, a debilitating and lonely place. The cupped hands of the world’s web seem far away now and I can’t see a clear path back to any sort of peace. I send out a call for help, as best I can, I call my troubles out into the world—and back into this dark place come an army of people with axes, helping to chop holes in the barricades to let the light in. My best friend, though far away and going through her own ordeal, listens to all my rantings and fears and offers unconditional support and encouragement. A new-found artist friend and her husband offer to drive over if things get bad. Neighbors call to see how I’m doing. A friend (and ex-boyfriend) calls for the same reason, entertaining me with recipes and movie reviews. My spiritual director sends me the wisdom of the ages and irreverent limericks. A lovely man in the park talked to me about ospreys. My parents offered advice and came over to hang out a while. Countless others hand me their own experiences, their own brand of comfort, outpourings of more support than I could have even imagined. It was all a lifeline, meant to lift me out of this place of fear. It was, I realized, my human version of wings.

We are social creatures. While plenty of us in this world live lonely lives, how many of us can imagine living cut off from all love and friendship? Without the support of some human contact? Without the ability to hold out a hand and have it held—somehow—in return? It takes so little, I find. No dramatic rescues, no overwhelming gestures—just the simple gift of response—of someone being there.

At night, when the darkness closes in, when the moths and bats come out, when the owls start to call, I think again of Marty. And I hope that in some owl-ish way his calls into the darkness were answered, that he was in some small measure comforted, as mine were and as I was.

Thanks to everyone for the wings.

Friday, August 17, 2007

jenny wren

I am studying birdsong.

Walking in the evenings I pass an apple tree, which often bursts into song as I approach. I’ve heard birdsong described before as “liquid” and that, I now know, is because it is often the only word possible to describe the sense of the sound in the air. It is like being in water, where all is flowing circles and curves, where all is continuous movement, where that pouring slow wave of sound has an organic, sensuous, rounded crest and the trickles and gurgles and races of it fill the air like bell-notes without the clamor and hard edges of metal. Think of a sweet cake batter, so smooth it shines, being poured from bowl to pan—think of heavy cream rippling sinuously into a basin. This birdsong is like that—the individual notes eliding one into the next so there is never quite complete silence between them, the individual notes sounding round and full and big in the heavy summer evening air, yet not heavy—they rise, not fall—they float, round, through the dusk.

Each night I look in vain for the singer. It is as if the tree itself is singing to us as we walk by, Tessa and I. I hear the droning percussive voices of insects in the grass, the occasional out-of-tune-banjo twang of frogs in the pond across the way, other birds calling in the stand of trees just across the clearing. But nearest me, and sweetest, is this amazing evening song.

Tonight—with some patience and luck—I did see the singer. I have been looking, I realize, for a large bird—thinking that such a full and voluptuous song must come from a large throat, something sturdy and heavy on the branch. But what I saw was the merest handful of feathers and beating heart and bright eyes—brown, almost dull—a wisping flitting fast moving house wren, who came down out of her tree to show herself on the white board fence before flying off into the hedgerow.

A wren. I was so pleased to have put a name to this voice, to have grown that tiny much more familiar with my world, to be able to wake, or sleep, hearing that liquid song and know who is singing. And I am pleased, too, for the reminder that it is the size of the spirit that determines the size of the song and that the body has nothing whatsoever to do with it—that spirit cannot be measured by any yardstick of earth, by material lengths and weights, but is rather tallied up in some heavenly way. Much the same way water is able to outlast and outwear the hardest of any stone, the spirit must have its own rules of shape and size. I am reminded to listen to its message before, or instead of, wrapping it up in my own preconceived and mismanaged notions of body.


Birdsong, for me, is like poetry, I cherish both but can memorize neither. Even the simplest songs I hear over and over escape me. I try to fix them in my mind, I hurry home to my birdsong tapes, and inevitably I find they are gone—and the song I heard could be all, or none. But birdsong, all the same, structures a piece of whom I am, orients me somehow on this planet. For five years I lived in Colorado. While I didn’t much like that time, I never really thought about the birds except to notice they have magpies there, as they do in England, and that always struck me as odd (I’d not had a particularly good time in England, either, for quite similar reasons when you boiled it all down). When I moved back east, where I’d grown up, it was under a cloud of frantic desperation: I literally fled the west back to familiar territory, back to family, putting as much distance as I could between myself and where I’d been. A geographic solution, if there ever was one.

I found comfort back east in a way I’d never thought to look for it. I moved in early March. It was snowing in Colorado that afternoon I drove out of town—and wet and chilly the midday I drove into Virginia. I moved into an apartment, I organized my stuff, I started walking Tessa around the neighborhood. Oddly, and almost immediately, I felt on these walks some very inner, essential core of my being relaxing, unwinding, settling. I puzzled over this feeling, not knowing it. And then the azaleas began to bloom and I heard a mockingbird sing and I knew. It was the birds—the birds, and the timing of the birds, and the blooming of the azaleas. I was immersed again in the outdoor cycle of my childhood, my first and lasting experiences of my wild backyard. So when the daffodils came out before the tulips—when the azaleas bloomed after the dogwood—I knew what came next—I knew what birds sang when, right through the entire gorgeous blossoming of the year. In Colorado, I had no history, no knowing. My history back east was different, something my cells had memorized down the years. This cycle felt right to me, felt like mine. I may not know all their songs—I may look in vain for the singers when I hear them—but their songs are as much a part of me as the sound of the blood in my veins, my own heartbeat, the rhythm of my breath. Their songs are the framework on which I hang my life, my seasons, by which I can tell whether or not I’m home.

Friday, August 10, 2007

rediscovering water

My dog and I are rediscovering water.

When I moved here in mid-June this meant walking each morning and evening down to our community dock to watch the creek and the birds that lived there and—for my dog Tessa—to “manage” the fish that jumped when the evenings were flat and still and lovely. It meant seeing the crowds of frogs that came out after dark and hopped in the grass near the warm pavement. It meant throwing open my bedroom windows on the cool nights to hear these frogs calling through the darkness, five or seven or ten different voices and the deep lunk-lunk of the bullfrog behind them, lulling me to sleep.

Now it’s August. Cicadas droning in the trees by day have replaced the night frogs. We’ve a serious drought and the frog marsh is almost dry—apart from an occasional nocturnal or early morning toad, I don’t see frogs anymore. We still walk to the creek, Tessa and I, which has a sort of floating scum on it on calm days—most days now are calm—and all the water seems to reside in the air itself, as temperatures race headlong into the high 90s and the humidity follows close behind. Our walks pull the water out of the air into my tee shirt, and pull some kind of restlessness out from inside my belly. It’s hard to find equanimity, much less serenity—it is hard to be outside at all.

And yet, if one has a dog, one must venture out. And so we do, several times a day. We try to get out early in the morning, and we try to get to the creek, though the walk takes us through the most humid piece of land around, the mulch path to and through the woods. (Mornings, something like a hundred thousand spiders drape their webs across the path. I tell myself that, surely, spiderweb is good for one's complexion…?)

This afternoon the skies got dark and the wind came up and we had a few minutes of light rain. When the dog and I went to the creek the path through the woods was cool and watersplashed and lovely. Diana butterflies floated in the aisles and speckled sunlight. We walked out of the coolness and down the dock to sit on the bench there, back in the baking sun, in the dazzling late afternoon glare of August. In my head were emails I had to write and copy that was overdue and new clients I had to manage. But I sat on that creek and I closed my eyes and I let the sun beat down on me and some of that clamor faded. And as the clamor fades the birdsong comes up, two separate volume controls going in different directions. I thought suddenly about angels and about how nice it’d be to share this particular piece of afternoon.

The man walked out of the woods then and down the dock and sat on the end of it, swinging his legs over the water. He wore green nylon running shorts and hiking boots—that’s all—black hair, light eyes, a smile. I’ve seen him before, twice, both times by water. Once he was sitting, weaving something out of grass, and once he was coming out of the weeds by the water's edge, perhaps out of the creek itself. Perhaps, I thought, he is an angel. My dog went over to lie next to him. The sun kept beating and the tide kept turning and we watched four ospreys for a while, circling way up in the sky and calling to one another in their high, sweet, wild voices. “Can you feel it?” the angel-man asked me then. “Can you just feel the energy coming up off this water?” He held his palms out over it. I looked away from him, downstream. I looked at the flow of the water down and out to the bay and sea, at the flow of the tide coming up toward us, at the ripples of wind across the skin of the creek. I felt as if the entire earth was shifting and the creek was the only solid piece of ground. I felt the heaviness of the day fall apart and the energy of the water come up to meet me in a volume of birdsong and wind, trees creaking and fish splashing, throwing themselves in the air like silver medallions, flashing in the sun.

Tessa and I walked back slowly through the cool trees and along the hot path where the trumpet vine blooms orange-red and blue and black dragonflies dart and hover. Somewhere behind us the creek rests in its shifting impermanence—and I realize I have anchored myself to this water as firmly as I’ve attached myself to anything on this earth.