Hieronymus Bosch. Garden of Earthly Delights (detail, including a Hoopoe), ~1500.
Yesterday a friend visited me for the first time since her mate died.
I was overjoyed to see her out and about. Her stories were hard but necessary.
She is still in the confusion of grief – peeking out of the darkness but unsure which direction is onward.
The events of her last year will never be outlived. She won’t ever get over that kind of loss. She won’t even want to, probably, once things settle.
Instead it will become a part of her, and the immediate pain will fade – I know this much from experience – becoming a dark backdrop to highlighting the brighter joys of memory.
Those memories sparkle all the more against the contrasting, infinite black of mourning which follows them and closes over them like a black velvet glove holding a handful of diamonds.
Supply creates demand. Paucity creates value. It’s the finite smiles of a lifetime complete rather than the mourning of a few hard weeks that we most often remember in the years to come.
The initial abundance of grief is just proof of those smiles, a confirmation of their worth in love.
But right now, there is so very much grief for her and such hard sorrow – a bath of tears, as she put it in French. An immersion.
M is off again on the airways.
This morning I looked up his temporary worksite in LA on Googlemaps Streetview. With my cursor manipulating distorted photos, I drove in virtual space up and down the highway past the factory address where he will be today.
I swiveled around in panorama view, trying to guess the season in which the images were taken, trying to feel close to him in his sojourn to a California industrial park.
There on screen was a completely different world than the one we live in here. Over there are strip malls, street lights, garish signs, enormous automobiles, and long empty spaces.
That landscape is nothing like Europe. That landscape is what we came from, and what we tried to leave. We wanted Old World magic. Rusticity. Quirky corners. Dilapidation. Authenticity. Roots!
But the demands of business draw you back, more often than you might like, to Europe’s aggrandized colonial re-imagination of itself on another continent.
LA represents what many Europeans still want to become. Around here, in rural southwestern France, the villages are putting up streetlights and tract housing as fast as they can run the lines. Two of the four largest villages around us have erected giant TV-screen type signs outside their city halls, which run all night like something that fell off the prop truck of Bladerunner. We are horrified.
And the streetlights are absolutely ruining our view of the stars. Just a few years ago, the Milky Way was plainly visible on a great many nights, running diagonally above the house, a white stripe across the sky. These days a nearby big-box grocery store leaves their parking lot lights on until 1am. It’s infuriating – not just wasteful but inelegant, too.
Yet when you tell someone you moved from LA or Miami or Atlanta to this place, invariably their first response is, “But…. Whyyyy?”
They think of those places as Paradise just like we think of this as Paradise.
Sometimes we are forced to confront our personal best through our personal worst, and vice versa. Comparisons create awareness. Paucity creates value. Contrast creates relief.
Hoopoes are extravagant birds which winter in Africa but are frequently seen around here in the summer, and they have become one of our favorite mascots for the house.
I giddily responded with a photo of the first hoopoe I encountered the first year we were in this house, during those first drastic renovations.
The house was gutted, just a pile of rubble in most rooms. I saw an outrageously plumed bird strutting proudly down the center of the main hall, headdress up, as if he owned the place, as if to say, “Yes. Yes, this will do nicely. I’ll take it!”
He looked like the result of an orange toucan mating with a woodpecker. I’d never seen anything like it.
From Wikipedia I soon learned, “The hoopoe prefers a barren, rocky escarpment as the ideal habitat.” I thought, well, that’s our house to a tee. It was a barren, rocky escarpment for sure, at that point. Oh welcome home, little hoopoe!
We have his many descendants here this season again, I think, because of the irresistible allure of the gutted house back then, even if in the birds’ point of view the place has been ruined by all the repairs and patching.
I was surprised to realize that the photo of our first hoopoe was over four years old. My memories of that time remain vivid and specific. Despite the intervening years and so many changes in me and to the property, the mental images have not changed.
Meanwhile the house is no longer quite excusable as rubble. We have to actually clean up when people come over, because we cannot claim to be renovating a ruin any longer. Most everything is better, in terms of daily creature comforts.
But I was aware, looking at the photo of the black marble mantle in our current bedroom, back when it was covered in tools and cracked plaster and when wildlife was still coming and going in the house, that something is also lost now. The joy of creation, maybe. The newness of our choice. The excitement of change?
Whatever it is, I know that our current “now” will not be remembered in the future as a “then” with the same piquancy and delight as our “then” is remembered now.
It’s when you delve into the landscape, into the minutiae and tangibles, day after week after year, that you find yourself obsessed with the seal on this faucet or the erosion behind that barn.
The more you tame a place, the more mundane it becomes.
Renovations are currently on pause, to let the pockets re-inflate a bit, as the French put it. We both have new jobs. M is traveling so much lately that he is exhausted whenever he is home.
I had not been outside to sit on the river at sunset for weeks, until our grieving friend came last evening and suggested it. We did go out then, of course – it’s a prime view, the most pleasant place we have to sit and talk outdoors.
“Why don’t I go out there every night?,” I asked myself. Now we have real furniture and nice level gravel, whereas we used to make our way out there every single night in boots with folding chairs and just sit in silent rapture on the uneven grade, no matter the weather.
What happened to that feeling of excitement and awe?
Am I putting up so many of my own “streetlights” around here that I am polluting our view of the stars?
After this series of events, I decided in the afternoon to let myself wander into the past and pick a few flowers of memory, in hopes of recapturing that initial joy in this place. I got out the old photo albums to reminisce.
Life is short, with no guarantees for tomorrow, and this is our anti-LA. This is our dream. I don’t want to ever forget it.
I have the hoopoe to thank for revisiting that original dream today.
And poetically, while I was sitting at the computer, a bird flew up to my office window and took a look in.
No, it was not a hoopoe. It was instead one of the majestic young kestrels which were hatched in the attic this past year, a completely different drama in a completely new storyline.
I say majestic because they will be, even if they are still a bit wobbly right now, not fully in command of their bodies in flight. They have been funny to watch, trying to master the art of being a fearsome raptor when they can barely steer in the air.
Despite looking like an elegant Egyptian sculpture, this one was so discombobulated that she could barely catch her balance and cast off again in panic after spotting me through the window.
She will get the hang of it. She’s just shakey for the moment, being so fresh from the nest.
There, right there, was wonderment. No need to look backwards in time.
I hope that she finds herself reliving those first heady days of new experience with appreciation, even in her sadness, and letting them guide her toward new ones, expanding forward and backward into her life in both directions.
The world by its nature is mundane – literally, worldly – if we don’t look past it. It’s the sublime which we rarely glimpse – a shooting star streaking across the infinite blackness, for we who are lucky, or a new bird on the sill, so confused that we get an extra close look.
Or the impromptu visit of a grieving friend who brings a lot of secret wisdom in her troubled perspective.