My friends Ming and David came out on Sunday for our annual New Year’s walk, only six months late. After coffee and croissants, we headed for the beach. The air was warm and humid, the shore was heaped with tangles of kelp, and little flies hovered about our faces. We detoured first to see the state of the whale that had died at sea in January and washed up onto the sand. It lies there now in graphic decomposition, having gradually become part of the landscape, from the distance just a mound of darkened sand, and in close-up a crash course in mortality.
What does it say about us that we visit it like a shrine, or point it out to friends as though it were a local landmark? We respect the majesty of its being, are shocked at the enormity of its death, and at the same time are morbidly fascinated by its remains–that something this large, once living, is becoming earth and dust before our eyes. The crowd of vultures, gulls and occasional coyotes that initially came to peck and feast on the carcass have long since abandoned it to ruin. Its discolored skin has collapsed like a tent, here and there is the shock of bone exposed, and a vacated eye socket stares blankly into eternity.
We each bring something of ourselves to it. David, a veterinarian, points out a few anatomical features, although they are present only like Dali’s melting pocket watches, gone soft and shapeless, devoid of purpose, for time takes all, and even time is taken. Ming leans down to look more closely, falls silent, and gradually slides into a kneel, honoring the spirit once housed within this vessel. She gently touches what we think is skull, and closes her eyes for a moment. She holds a quiver of raggedy feathers and a broken bit of abalone shell, treasures gathered as we walked. Ming is young, and open to the everything-ness, even when it overwhelms. And I am the one who suggests we get going.
Elsewhere, there are families on the beach, umbrellas and coolers, children and dogs, a kind of playful chaos that I remember well.
Doing things I used to do
They think are new
Yes, I know it’s maudlin and melancholy, but that phrase from an old song sung by Marianne Faithful is what comes into my head. Who can explain how fast it all goes by? Then there comes a time of reinvention. That’s where I’m at now. I walk on the beach with shoes and jeans, a part of the scene but apart from it, zig-zagging and wobbly. I’m trying to learn.
And that reminds me: there is a cattle scale at the corral at San Augustine that I’ve been curious about, the oldest in Santa Barbara County, and it isn’t far to walk from here, and wouldn’t it be cool to have our veterinarian friend explain how it works?
We walk a little further west, inland, uphill, and across a railroad track to an area where fencing, cattle chutes, and other old structures from the ranching operations are clustered. The wood housing that encloses the scale has recently been rebuilt, but the scale itself has been in use since 1892, is still used today, and is known for its accuracy. Based on the design and time frame, David speculates that it is a Fairbanks scale, and he tells me about the Fairbanks brothers of Vermont, Erastus and Thaddeus, who developed an accurate and stable weighing machine in the 1820s. The Fairbanks scale used an arrangement of four supporting levers lowered into a pit, and a platform level with the ground, ending the task of having to hoist the entire load. It was patented in 1830 and by 1882 the company was producing 80,000 scales annually, both standard and custom.
David’s an enthusiastic teacher. He points out the route the cattle would take to get onto the platform, and he shows us the balances and counter-balances, and he talks about feed conversion, weight loss, and profitability. There’s a whole science to this, and accuracy is crucial. A red and white seal shows that our scale has been certified by the Santa Barbara County department of Agriculture Weights and Measures, which is very exciting, but I find my attention drawn to the beautiful rippled patterns and complex texture of the weathered wood fencing, the comforting chug and whistle of a passing freight train, the familiar golden hills framed in the window of a barn. Meanwhile Ming has discovered a tiny, emaciated calf with a patch over its eye in a nearby corral. On first glance, David doesn’t think the prognosis is great, but maybe, with the special care it is evidently getting, the poignant little animal might manage to pull through. Just another small drama quietly unfolding…
We talk and fall silent in comfortable waves, and we inevitably get to the heart of things. Still in the ascending arch of her early thirties, Ming has life events to share, the kind that seem to come at you fast, ground shifting when you’ve barely found your footing. And it’s all a great adventure but there is also a fire nearby and the threat of evacuation, and a relationship that hasn’t really launched, and the college debt that feels impossible to climb out of, and most of all, there is the disillusionment of what is happening since the 2016 election.
“I grew up in a hopeful time,” she tells us. She didn’t know that misogyny and racism were still so prevalent, that our democracy could be under siege as it is, and everything we care about threatened. “I guess I don’t feel hopeful anymore,” she says.
I know what she means. The weight of the world is bearing down on us all. But I was an idealistic new teacher once, one of hope’s intrepid foot soldiers, and Ming, in fact, was in my class back then, more than twenty years ago. And I still believe that my role is to act in hopeful ways, particularly as an elder. It’s dangerous to flirt with despair, or even give it leeway it as an option. When it comes to despair, I’m deliberately in denial. I think despair, like hope, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Oh, I admit that life was easier when I didn’t understand how fleeting it is, when I didn’t know that rather than abating, loss compounds, and time heals nothing. Life was easier when I wasn’t bombarded moment by moment by news near and far, when I thought that suffering was not in vain and some kind of everything-will-be-okay-ness ultimately awaited.
Now it all weighs so heavy, it’s hard to stand up. But I point out legitimate victories to my young friend, and remind her that unanticipated developments are yet to come, some of which will be wonderful. We cannot be the ones who gave up.
When we three get together, we have a little ritual before we say good-bye. Ming calls it “postcards to the universe”. Some might call it prayer. We speak what is in our hearts, what we would want in the year ahead. On this occasion, David begins: “Dear Universe,” he says. “This is not so much a postcard or a request, but rather a statement of intent. I hereby resolve not to try so hard to control everything. I intend to have a lighter touch, to trust the give and take, the natural ebbs and flows, to navigate gently and know that we cannot force things.”
Ming’s postcard is essentially a wish and a summoning of strength, and mine is mostly gratitude for love and wonder, and an oft-stated hope that we’ll get through this dark time, as a nation and in our own lives, maybe even emerging better than we were, more cognizant, more engaged. Maybe something like faith will reassert itself without all this exhaustive effort to pretend it isn’t shaken. My heart is heavy, but there’s still a spark within. And sparks upon sparks can light the world.