A well-established French cinematic tradition is to spin out a story that seems to be about very little—until you get a peek beneath the surface and can see it is about a dizzying number of things. Then the themes and symbols rain down, forcing you to watch and listen carefully lest you miss one of the clues that helps explain, perhaps even solve, the tale.
The bag I drag is solid as earth, clods I couldn’t shake off roots reeking of rocks and blackness, the kind of dirt they’ll use to bury us. As in Iraq, where the body count climbed so fast mortuaries posted Help Wanted beside the highway.
And let me mention my own complicity with darkness, buying a jade jacket sewn by a hungry child in Singapore. And the way I say darkness, a skin tone not my own. Even the calibrations of a poem, tricky, the justice of lines, evil wrestling with good in the miniature Madison Square Garden of a page.
As I weed, I listen to the sweet cacophony of neighbor kids on scooters, the argument of work, its ache in my arms.
When the lawn bag rips, dandelions tumble out, eager to spread their seed. You know how gullible evil is, sure of itself, always believing the worst. Are dandelions weeds or flowers? Maybe I’ll tear the bag, send seeds flying, encourage a suspicious universe to bloom.
It’d been a long winter, rags of snow hanging on; then, at the end of April, an icy nor’easter, powerful as a hurricane. But now I’ve landed on the coast of Maine, visiting a friend who lives two blocks from the ocean, and I can’t believe my luck, out this mild morning, race-walking along the strand. Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running for the sheer dopey joy of it. No one’s in the water, but walkers and shellers leave their tracks on the hardpack. The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot, strewn, are broken bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls of whelk, chips of purple and white wampum, hinges of quahog, fragments of flat gray sand dollars. Nothing whole, everything broken, washed up here, stranded. Light pours down, a rinse of lemon on a cold plate of oysters. All of us, broken, some way or other. All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
One morning this summer I was basking in the sun With the brother closest to me in age. We had been Brought up almost as twins but then took disparate Roads, as twins do. He was sobbing and I was near Tears and the ocean was muttering. I heard a heron. We had been having the most naked open talk we’d Had in many years. I wanted to tell him how deeply I loved him but words are just so weak and shallow. So I talked about the forsythia bush we used to hide Under together. It was the safest place on the planet. The light was always amazing in there and it wasn’t Ever muddy somehow and you were draped in gold. It was a hut a huddle a tent a canopy a cave a refuge. Sometimes you have to use a thing to say something Else. We do this all the time. We talk sideways, yes? But sidelong is often the only road that gets to where You know you need to go. So much means lots more Than it seems like it could mean. Tears, for example.
John Coleman, who died recently, presided over Haverford College during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. He sympathized with students’ antiwar protests but also tried to channel the antiwar movement in constructive ways. When students considered burning the American flag, Coleman placed a washing machine at the center of the campus and encouraged students to wash the flag instead. He persuaded dozens of college presidents to sign an antiwar statement. On sabbaticals he took blue-collar jobs to explore the gap between academics and workers (Inside Higher Ed, September 12).