A Side Trip To Brittany, With Music

On this particular Friday, we awoke to the alarm at 6 a.m. and walked over to meet the kids for our drive to Stansted airport and the short flight to Brittany, where our son-in-law’s parents, Jill and Peter, have a home. My journal mentions bird song, trees in fog, soft gray autumnal light, and “flat white” coffee from The Missing Bean in East Oxford, which is milky but strong and seriously caffeinated, just the way I like it.  Soon I am sitting in the backseat of a little red car, reading emails on my phone and the usual Twitter stream of outrage and anxiety, and listening to the clipped, reassuring tones of BBC Radio 4. Through the misty windows I see students walking to school, bicyclists, morning traffic. It’s the beginning of a busy fall day in the regular work world, but we are on vacation.

There’s a program called Desert Island Discs on the radio, where guests (called castaways) choose the music they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and their selections are played in the course of an interview. A director named Paul Greengrass is the castaway today, and his musical choices thus became the soundtrack for much of our drive to Stansted. His choices include Dylan, B.B. King, Springstreen, Beatles, and the overture from Lawrence of Arabia.

But most memorably, there is the delightful duet between Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s Magic Flute, which Greengrass has selected because, in his words, “it reminds you of the joy of humanity and what it is to be alive”. Indeed it does, for it careens tipsily into hilarity, and it’s a very fine piece for the start of a journey:

Papageno/Papagena Duet

We arrive at the airport, board our economy flight, and sit in narrow seats not even next to one another, but soon we are at Dinard, the airport in Brittany. Brittany is a whole new place in my geography, and my first impression is of  a porcelain blue sky with white clouds and gray stone houses. We are driving along country roads to a coastal town called Pléneuf-Val-Andre, and the first music I hear in Brittany is a song called “Let It Lie” by Bros. Landreth, the title of which is very good advice.

It is followed by a song called “Holy” by Chris Pureka which I have come to love, have since downloaded, and listen to often. Its  lyrics make references to a “a mountain of old pain” and a yearning for redemption, which is oh, so me…”but we danced, yeah we danced, to be whole, to be holy.” Somehow it strikes a balance between mournful and defiant. Feel free to have a listen as we drive:

Chris Pureka Holy

So yeah, it’s fitting, because my head has been churning up sad and painful memories again, even here, and it occurs to me that this is a perverse, unconscious way I punish myself for being so fortunate, a reflexive or ritualistic acknowledgement of all the things the others didn’t get to do, as though self-flagellation could ever balance out the terrible inequities of life.

More about this later, but for now I shove it out of my head and, as one of the songs says, let it lie. I have been learning to take a deep breath and turn away, and it isn’t easy, but sometimes I succeed. I refuse to go to the dark places when there is so much light.

So much light. Roads are winding and there are cornfields and plowed earth and bakeries and markets and tall houses standing stately in the brightness by the sea. Jill and Peter welcome us to their home and we sit at a table in the backyard having wine and fruit and cheese and sliced ham and buttery croissants with jam…and now I feel like I am in a slow-moving French movie about well-heeled people having a lazy lunch at their country house.

And these days in Brittany are pleasant ones of walks along coastal paths and through the narrow streets of a picturesque town called Moncontour, and once to a lighthouse, and sometimes along the boardwalk of Pléneuf-Val-Andre above a broad white sand beach where people are sitting beneath umbrellas or strolling with their little dogs, and Monte and Miranda go swimming every day. Once there is rain with sun shining through, and the sky is like a sheer gray silk curtain behind which a lamp has been switched on, rendering everything in the warm, blushing hues of a dream. One evening we go to a restaurant on the waterfront, and there are boats in the gold glow of sunset, and I see my daughter walking by the water, and sometimes she is the little girl she used to be.

Life. I used to think everything would all fold itself up into some kind of resolution someday, that a sequential progression of events was proceeding toward a state of sense and settlement, not unlike a story, and that would be that. But that’s not the way it is. Everything is always pending. And depending. And deepening. Maybe everyone knew that but me.

On our last night in Brittany, Peter lights a fire and we all sit in the living room listening to an incongruously random mix of music…Guy Clark and Nina Simone…Iz Kamakawiwo’ole and Leonard Cohen, Tim Buckley and Andrew Bird…why should it make sense? Maybe the theme was wistfulness, maybe it was about not wanting the evening to end.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow as sung by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole

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In Pembrokeshire

My blog posts from our travels will not be chronological. I’m going through my journal in a random way looking for the things I want to write about, and today I came upon a passage about our trip to Wales, and it’s the kind of lazy meander I can use right now. I want to return in my head to that peaceful green place with its picturesque coves and dazzling skies. I want to eat a scone and look at flowers and not make any sense.

After several days in Oxford, we rented a car and drove about four hours to Pembrokeshire, in southwestern Wales, where we met up with our friends Nick and Hilary at a rented cottage in a place called Stackpole Quay. The property is part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, over two hundred square miles of cliffs and hills, marshes and estuaries, beaches and forests.

The cottage was dim-lit and dreary, not nearly as charming as it sounded. But our days were all about the walks, and the weather was glorious. There are miles and miles of coastal paths in this region, and beautiful bluffs and beaches, and we sauntered for hours, then lay down on the grass, as people our age like to do, being idle and dreamy.  Of course the men were always venturing too far to the edges of cliffs, leaning over to investigate the geological whimsy, which made us very nervous, but there were no catastrophes. And at the end of the day, Monte went for a swim.

It was a verdant and fragrant world, layered and textured and filled with secrets. Nick and Hilary know the names of plants, which become a kind of poetry: hart’s tongue, sea mouse-ear, vetch, stonecrop, wild thyme, bittersweet…

But what Nick intends to see on this trip is an otter. “You have to look hard,” he says. “You have to believe you will see one. And if you look hard and believe, you inevitably will.”

He’s quick to clarify that this is not like a unicorn quest…now that would be delusional. If you are going to spot an animal, you first need to know that it’s a factual possibility, and there is indeed an otter reserve at the Upper Mill Pond here in Pembrokeshire. Otters are elusive, but numerous sightings have been reported.

He gazes outward, watching for movement, asking walkers if they’ve seen any, and no one has, nor ever does he. But he’s happy just to be here, and he doesn’t seem disappointed, and it occurs to me that having a quest, whether or not it is fulfilled, is simply part of the fun. Enthusiasms provide a way of sorting the random input of reality. I have a few myself.

In the evenings we have hearty dinners around the table in the front room of the cottage and there is a lot of talk about things I never want to talk about. Politics, for example, a topic I am here to get away from. Also, elder care and end-of-life, which seems to be the subject people our age go to immediately after addressing the inventory of their own aches, physical ailments, and various signs of decline.

One night I fall out of my narrow bed, no damage done, but I can’t go back to sleep, and I get up to pee and pour myself a bit of milk to wash an Advil down, stumbling around in the unfamiliar space, trying not to trip on the odd step into the kitchen, trying not to disturb the others. I’ve grabbed my phone, but there’s no wi-fi or cell signal here, and maybe that’s a blessing; we all know no good comes of those middle-of-the-night news updates. Instead I read my book, which has come to a dull place, and I brood and feel a little blue for a while, restlessly awaiting daylight in a cottage in coastal Wales at the edge of a national park.

Morning comes, and it starts out tentative and misty so we grab our umbrellas to make sure it doesn’t rain, but the day soon blossoms into blue sky brightness, and we walk to the lily pond and hear a robin singing, and find our way to the gardens of a castle, and then to a little town where there’s a pub that serves fish and chips, and we sit outside seeing clouds and country and an old stone church, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’re getting away with something, but while the day is happening, it’s the best day in the world.

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From The Far Side of the Ocean

Our lodging is the attic room of an apartment in Oxford, a room we know well, having stayed here several times before. There is a low slanted ceiling, a narrow window overlooking streets and back yards, a few quirky little attempts at décor. There’s not much space in here, but it makes me feel enfolded and secure. It’s like a child’s room. I think it’s that slanted ceiling.

It’s our first night here, and I have slept the deep sleep of the exhausted, with powerful dreams that I can’t quite shake. In one dream, I saw my father, dear and yearned for, and I had something to tell him, something crucial, but he vanished. In another, I was searching for my mother, who was inexplicably somewhere in Texas, and I felt worried and responsible. Marlene and Eddie appeared as well…can’t dream far without my beloved siblings who died so cruelly young.

And this, it turns out, is how the trip will be. Wherever you go, there you are…right? And wherever you are, there too are your stories and the whole cast of characters. I have brought them all to England in my head. I’ll be reckoning with this in the most unlikely places.

It rained in the night, but now clouds are giving way to sunshine, and the day holds promise. We walk a block or two to the Cowley Road. There are homeless people asleep on the sidewalk or leaning against the doorways of unopened stores, with their shopping carts, blankets, and dogs, seemingly oblivious to the growing traffic and quickening pace of the street. Folks are heading off to work or school, confidently pedaling bicycles, striding along on foot, riding in cars or buses, an endless procession, gathering steam.

Our destination is a favorite coffee place where I order a latte and sit down, jotting fragments in my journal and watching the people hurrying along outside. The day is turning beautiful. The light is clear and bright, and yellow leaves are trembling (“like something almost being said”, as Philip Larkin put it), everything shining in its moment.

The espresso is strong (as I like it) and the music being played is Van Morrison, nothing but, and most of the people in here  are the age I was when those Van Morrison songs were new. I can so easily picture her, that girl I was, looking out from within, thinking she had so much time, thinking she would always be intact, but of course she doesn’t exist anymore, having been undone and reconstituted more than once.

Well, maybe there’s an essence. I don’t know.

And I’m still thinking about those intense and troubling dreams from the night before, and how the travel had exhausted me but revived and energized my old ghosts who were haunting me with new twists now, and unusually vivid. I am trying to decipher those dreams…what did they mean? What is my subconscious telling me? What am I supposed to learn, and why is it taking me so long?

Meanwhile, there’s that soundtrack of Van Morrison, and a murmur of voices with English accents, a clicking of computer keys, the noise of an espresso machine.  I was a brown-eyed girl once, skipping and a-jumping, slipping and a-sliding and suddenly I’m an almost-old woman in a coffee shop, sort of free associating with Van Morrison, floating into the mystic, a stranger in the world. Remember that album Astral Weeks?

From the far side of the ocean
If I put the wheels in motion
And I stand with my arms behind me
And I’m pushin’ on the door…

Then for no particular reason I think of my poet friend Dan, my accidental mentor, and I feel certain that he would tell me to forget about those dreams and focus on the light and the way the leaves are trembling.

And that’s what I did.

I don’t know what anything means. But it was a beautiful morning and I stepped out into it.

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On An Airplane

I don’t know what day it is. The light has shifted from purple to blue, and young men in gray vests are wheeling carts through the narrow aisles that suddenly smell vaguely of breakfast. I do not know if I’ve slept or merely been unconscious, nor do I know how many hours I’ve been in that state. It may have been mere minutes.

Through the portal I see a silvery wing against the snow white cloud of sky, and the eerie light of the vast unknown. The border of the portal is pink, and within the capsule that contains us there is the rosy glow of a synthetic dawn, and the comforting industry of  flight attendants trying to create a rise ‘n shine kind of feeling, but we are all subdued and baffled.

And we must be almost here, but what that means seems somehow rather fluid. I’m a 19th century woman in a jet age, and I’ll never get my mind around it.

(You might also be interested in this post about flying.)

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A Palmier Moment

Picture a window in a fourth floor apartment in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a tall narrow window that opens like a door to a ledge bound by a wrought iron rail. The ledge is almost a balcony, and I suppose one could step out onto it…not that I ever would.

Looking out to the right one sees the steeple of Église Saint-Joseph-des-Nations, a majestic 19th century church whose name reflects the diversity of the neighborhood and whose distinctive clanging bell punctuates our hours here. Below us are the busy streets where bicyclists, dog walkers, workers, and shoppers wander past in an endless procession by day, and where noisy gatherings of friends loiter at night outside the bars, fragments of their conversation drifting into the bedroom, adorning my dreams with mysterious snippets of French, so near and clear that they startle me, and I lie awake wondering for a moment where I am, and the bed is a little boat on the great sea of the city.

One night there was rain. Umbrellas went up and paces quickened. A streetlamp illuminated raindrops falling and yellow leaves floating in the air and gathering in puddled curbs, and voices gave way to the splash and hiss of the rain that was the background sound to everything, interrupted occasionally by thunder.

But the next morning the sun shone and the clouds were so white and pretty they looked like they were pasted to a painted blue sky as a setting for a children’s play. And that’s when you should picture the window in the main room of the fourth floor apartment, this time with a beautiful dark-haired young woman standing there, looking out. She is my daughter, of course, and I know that this is one of those moments I will never forget.

Here’s the part where I blow it. I walk up to her and say, “Here we are looking out a window in Paris together.” I stand alongside her and reach for her hand. I am very conscious of this moment and I want it to last.

She quickly walks away. I’ve changed something for her, invaded it, I guess. Now I’m standing by a window in Paris by myself.

Later, I talk to my husband about this. He thinks my problem is that I verbalize everything. What would you have done? I ask. He would have quietly stood behind her and gently hugged her, he says, and they would just be there together without narration.

At first I think this seems a little bit like blocking her, a masculine trick, a more aggressive way to turn the moment into a shared one, but I realize that it’s a sincere expression of affection, and reflects the way they are together. They swim together, these two, they do things. I talk too much. I write too many secret scripts and expect others to know their roles. I’ll try to learn.

Later that day we wander over to the Île de la Cité. Several years ago, I bought a scoop of poire sorbet here. I’m almost certain of the street, and it was a pricy and tiny little scoop, a few precious licks and it was gone, but oh, it was heavenly. It was the sorbet to which I would compare all sorbets forever after, and none would ever live up to it. Its flavor was subtle and perfect. Poire.

So I decided to find some poire sorbet for my husband and daughter while they sat on a bench by the river looking at a map and resting their feet.  I wanted the delicious memory of poire sorbet at the Île de la Cité to belong to all of us. Alas, there was none to be found.

Instead, I came to a place selling baked goods, and I bought a palmier. I was thinking of  Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in which the taste of a Madeleine pastry unleashed a flood of vivid memories from a cup of tea. He wrote:

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. 

Exactly. Such are the keys to precious memories. How often has a fragrance, or a flavor, or for that matter, a fragment of music, taken me away to a long-ago time and place? Perhaps a bite of palmier now would prompt a Madeleine moment someday, reviving for my daughter a recollection of this moment. Maybe not. It would at least be a pleasing snack. No narration would be needed.

I carried it back in a white paper bag and presented it to my people. It was perhaps a little stale, but sweet and buttery, and big enough to share, and we were in Paris together.

And without expectations, everything was surprisingly good.

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Preparing For Our Journey

I don’t know if I ever cherish home quite as much as I do the last few days before leaving for a big trip, unless maybe it’s the way I cherish it when we return. But right now we’re in the mode of packing and organizing details and getting ready to leave tomorrow for the long journey to visit our daughter. We’ve watered plants, defrosted the fridge, left everything clean and tidy.  I walked up the canyon in the morning and thought how strange it is that all of this will soon be more than five thousand miles away. (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten used to modern times.) Anyway, I’ll be writing in my journal as I travel and I’ll catch up with this blog when I get back.

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The Tragedy and Travesty

We wake up to news about hurricanes of historical proportion, a terrible earthquake in Mexico, and the ramifications of North Korea’s nuclear missile tests.  Young immigrants who were brought here by their parents and have never known life elsewhere are being used as political pawns. There’s word that Equifax, one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the U.S., was subject to a breach of public data jeopardizing security information of 143 million consumers, then kept it secret until managers could sell their stock. The Republicans persist in their efforts to sabotage and repeal health care, and it has been revealed that Facebook was selling ads to Russian trolls during the election, helping to pave the path to the presidency for the unhinged huckster from reality TV who currently inhabits the office like a parasitic infection.

Okay, that’s called useless venting. But doesn’t it all seem overwhelming sometimes? Is anyone managing to sleep at night? Sometimes I want to crawl under the bed and scream.

But I am trying sooo hard to stay constructively engaged and not succumb to despair.

The other day, an eloquent person to whom I provided a little help wrote this: I am fortunate to have found in you such a lifelong friend and fellow miner of meaning in the face of the dark abyss of human predicament.

A miner of meaning…that does seem to fit. A very minor miner of meaning, to be sure, and one who has not yet found the gold, but yes, the quest is real, and we recognize each other. I am so grateful for fellow miners of meaning, seekers of truth, doers of kindness, fighters for justice, all who keep hope alive in whatever ways they can.

My dear friend Jeanne wrote: We will somehow get through this current mess. I am looking at choices for the future, and wondering how to re-invent myself, a necessity at the moment. 

And I think she’s on to something, because change begins inside of us.

Anyway, on Monday I’ll be flying to England to visit my daughter, and I wish I were doing so with greater peace of mind, but I’m happy to be checking out for a little while.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these words in a letter to a young poet long ago, and they seem right for the moment:

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Here’s to patience, and living everything, including that perhaps.

(Anxiety Girl comic from Natalie Dee)

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Walking Home

And who is that woman picking up feathers and broken bits of abalone shells and the thoughtlessly tossed plastic bottles that she will carry to the proper bin, futile though it is, annoyed and trying not to touch the mouths? Who is that woman walking the seashore and ascending the hills, in love with the world and afraid for it? She is deep in thought but trying not to think, her body a vessel filled with sadness and light. She is almost old.

There was to be an end-of-summer get-together, and more and more people kept drifting up from the beach, turning it into an impromptu communal feast. The fishermen were there with fresh-caught yellowtail, fried, grilled, or sashimi style, the farm and country women appeared wearing embroidered cotton tunics over bathing suits, bearing bowls of potato salad and heirloom tomatoes, and a young family showed up with take-out containers of Middle Eastern hors d’oeuvres. Children with sand in their hair ran around on the grass inventing games, a barefoot boy sat on the ground by a bucket adeptly gutting a fish, and old friends hugged and raised their glasses, surprised at how time flies. Ribbons of conversation floated in the air. Anyone would have loved it.

Except, apparently, me. I am genuinely fond of some of these folks, but it had been a long day already, and my hearing impairment makes it difficult to distinguish words when there’s a lot of ambient noise, and I was having trouble sustaining focus. And there were cell phone pictures to look at, and adorable toddlers with their wants, and wet dogs under foot, and far too many people for my rusty social skills. I imagine there are those who linger at parties milling around confidently, energized by all the socializing, but I’m an introvert. I appreciate one-on-one on conversation and intimate gatherings, but shindigs deplete me, and I shut down early. Already, I could feel myself squinting and a hint of headache creeping in. So I looked around wistfully, then slipped away.

I felt better as soon as I passed the eucalyptus trees, their trunks glowing in the golden light. I crossed the railroad tracks, saw a horse silhouetted on a hilltop, observed the colors of the tropical sky. I made my way up and down along the familiar road, its yellow line curving ahead, the landscape of sage and buckwheat softening in the gloaming. I saw the moon rise.

It was cool, and I felt unburdened and relieved. I had done exactly what I wanted to do, explaining to no one, reclaiming my self. The evening opened up to me, unfolding in its all its secret majesty, and I felt an intimacy with it that I could have never experienced otherwise. Why do the doves sound so mournful? Who is on that boat that’s always out there?  Which of the stories I’ve invented about myself is the true one I should live? Two cars passed on the main road, both drivers asked me if I was okay and offered me a ride. “No, thank you,” I said, “This is the best part of my day.”

I was a teeny bit scared walking up Sacate Canyon in the dark wondering about mountain lions, but most fears don’t materialize. “You are welcome,” said the night. You belong, somehow. Do not despair. I walked all the way home.

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Under the Weather

In the night we keep the windows open, and I can hear a train chuffing along, preceded by a ruckus of coyotes, and I’m hot and sweaty, my head filled with words and no sense. I wish I could either sleep or form coherent thoughts, but it’s the usual ghosts that haunt me. They’ll never let me off. And I imagine it will be this way as long as I live.

Meanwhile, the air has been thick as butter, and we’re all slogging through. Animals are coming down from the backcountry and loitering by the creek crossing, hot and thirsty and not particularly inclined to flee when I approach. Yesterday I saw a scraggly coyote as I drove out, and a mule deer as I returned, and in both cases, they looked at me straight on and barely nodded, having staked their rightful claims at the oasis. A neighbor said she saw a mother bobcat and two kittens at the same place a little earlier. Birds have been landing on the deck to dip their beaks into the saucers beneath the planting pots, and along the main road, there’s an ominous gathering of vultures on a telephone wire, waiting.

Things are not looking so good out there in the wider world either, but as Lily Tomlin put it: “Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” Sometimes you need to take a break. So I drove to town and ducked into a movie with my girlfriends. The theater was deliciously cool, and we were literally the only three in it. My favorite part of the film was where I fell asleep.

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Alignment

It was a last-minute invitation, and I said yes. My friend Linette and her sister Luanne were driving up to Oregon to see the total eclipse. There would be one overnight stop in Gilroy, where Linette’s sister-in-law lives, onward to Bend the next morning, and from Bend to a ranch-turned-campground in Mitchell, a small Oregon town (population 130) eighty miles from Bend and directly in the path of totality. There would be five of us in the cab of a Ford truck, and we had all heard the dire warnings about crowds, gas shortages, and traffic in gridlock. Camping would be involved too, an activity that I had long ago filed under the heading of “never again.” I looked up the distance between Buellton and Mitchell: 850 miles.

I had already decided that this glorified total eclipse was not in the cards for me, and I was fine with that, so it’s hard to say what compelled me to that yes. All I know is that Linette’s enthusiastic invitation was remarkably well timed. I’d been feeling stuck, and I needed to be dislodged, and now a magic carpet had landed at my house. All the planning had been done; I need only step on board. So I glossed over the discomforts and challenges of the excursion and focused on the opportunity to glimpse a wondrous celestial event. I wanted to leave myself behind and stand in the shadow of the moon. I wanted to see the shimmer of the solar corona and the color of the sky.

And so I said yes, and I joined the eclipse chasers, and now I was in the backseat wedged between two women I had never met before. We traveled northbound along highways and side roads, past rivers and lakes and a national forest, through small towns with diners and convenience stores and vacant motels and streets lined with American flags, with junkyards and gravel pits at their outskirts, and refineries and lumber mills, and barns that said Jesus Saves, and a bright purple Victorian house perched on a rise under muffled hazy skies. We stayed in a cabin with rough wood walls, and orange and yellow window coverings that gave everything a 1970s glow, and our host that night recited haiku poetry about hope and alignment, and I remembered when I went to Oregon from New York via Greyhound bus at the age of twenty-four, how little I knew. How little I know.

I bolted awake each morning at the cusp of daylight, feeling chilly and unrested, craving coffee, a dull headache hovering at the edge of my skull. Camping was the part I liked least, and I’ll never understand the appeal of sleeping on the ground and stumbling around in the dark, every mundane act transformed into a veritable expedition, but I suppose it’s a means to an end, as it was in this case. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful with things like setting up the tent or lighting the stove, but I became adept at getting out of the way, and I tried to be pleasant and unobtrusive, although I was always looking for something, sorting through my stuff, rustling like a mouse. I’m probably annoying.

The camping area was a thousand-acre cattle ranch dotted by pine trees. We chose a site in a flat open field of blonde grass, with a narrow stream burbling through, and a sparkling reservoir in the distance. There were very few people there when we first arrived, but by Saturday night, campers were closer and more numerous. Three little boys, one named Arlo, were playing by the stream, setting twig boats to sail. A hippie-esque young mother with long yellow hair was overseeing an impromptu lemonade business run by her enterprising daughters. There were scents of pot and propane in the air, and the sounds of laughter and conversation and cattle nearby expressing their noisy bewilderment. Everyone was there for the same reason, and a festive atmosphere prevailed.

We ventured out and explored the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds, hiking amidst weirdly beautiful rock formations in glaring sunlight, and we walked on a path through tall rushes to a river, where everyone but me went in. Most important, we scoped out the site where we would view the eclipse Monday morning, ascending a hill to a high meadow area with a wide view, where we could observe the whole progression of the shadow crossing.

The long-awaited morning broke still and clear. We dismantled our camp, packed the truck, drove a mile or two along a dirt road, parked, and climbed the hill. A few other eclipse chasers had begun to gather and wait, and friendly words were exchanged, but there was never a sense of crowding. People mostly stood in quiet expectation, looking east, spread out in a vaguely circular way, a human Stonehenge. There was something very ancient about it, and surreal. The air was warm, bright, and fragrant with sweet pine and dry grass. It was a golden kind of place, a golden passage into a primeval dream. We put on our cardboard-framed eclipse glasses, and watched as the astronomical spectacle began.

How strange and astonishing it was to see an expanding bite taken from the orange sun, looking like a picture book illustration of a solar eclipse! I found it unexpectedly moving, inexplicably poignant. The blackness widened slowly until the narrowest crescent of light remained, and then…totality. Glasses off. I was staring directly at the sun, and the sun was blackness, both a presence and an absence, encircled by a gleaming corona. There was something shocking about it. It was like a hole in the heavens, an opening to infinity.

But the sky around it asserted itself with new vividness, and bright Venus appeared, shining like a torch. I scanned the firmament, and it was never wholly dark, and never daylight, never even dusk, but somehow blue with undertones of mauve or violet, and at the edges of the hillside there was a band of muted pink-gold light, reminiscent of dawn, but not-dawn, of here, but somewhere else. The temperature abruptly dropped, and the air was tangibly and deliciously cool, moving gently across the field like a blessing.

We were suspended in a state of enchantment. Two minutes is longer than I thought, and so I wandered, and I gazed upon the ground, where the grass had turned silvery, oddly bleached of its color, and the pine trees were ghostly, and my own familiar shadow seemed elongated and sharply etched and weirdly disconnected from my body. But maybe that’s because I was weirdly disconnected from my body, and if this begins to sound like a hallucinogenic experience, that’s probably a good way of thinking about it, because it truly was mind-altering. Even as the moon passed and the sun reclaimed its dominion, and light and color returned to what we know, nothing seemed ordinary.

And nothing ever is. People ask me what I learned, what I felt, and it has to do with how stunningly extraordinary it is to be present to bear witness, to be alive even briefly in the fathomless universe, adrift on this beautiful and terrible planet where everything–even the commonplace–is implausible.

My first reaction as the shadow passed was pure awe, quickly followed by a profound sense of humility and gratitude, and those feelings have lingered. I am a pilgrim passing through, although I am not sure what I seek, and I have no illusions about my own significance, only an old impulse to leave things a little better, if possible, or at least try not to add to the world’s collective misery. I’m still inclined to write and document too, to think out loud in search of sense, hence blog posts such as this one, ephemeral though they are. But the universe is dancing whether we see it or not, and we can look up in wonder or miss it entirely.

I am now a woman who has seen a total eclipse, and that’s something to have done in a lifetime. As we drove home, we finally encountered the traffic  that had been predicted. We came to a dead stop on a dusty road alongside a forest, the air still ashy from recent fire, and temperatures miserably hot. But people were cheerful. We had all converged in this moment in time, a moment that would never occur again, an alignment for an alignment. A driver with cables did a u-turn in the middle of the road to give a stalled car a jump start, a woman from Australia walked alongside the traffic beneath an open umbrella, a little girl was jogging with her puppy on a leash. A gentleman in a neighboring vehicle offered us a joint, and most memorably, a man with a butterfly net cavorted in the woods at the edge of the road. I don’t know what he was hoping to catch, but he seemed to be having fun.

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