First published inNorth American Review, 296.1, Winter 2011. Appears inNews from the North.
1. Seeing the ice, congealing like white fat on the dark stock of the pond, I think of the four-hundred-and-five-year-old clam just dredged from the Arctic Ocean north of Iceland. QuahogArctica Islandica, the oldest living creature ever found, born the year the English encountered Cape Cod and William Shakespeare wroteOthello, three whenDon Quixotehit the press, seven when Galileo peered through his first-ever telescope. In those cole and pristine seas it drifted, larval, landed upon velvet silt and burrowed in, growing a film of shell a year. Daily it sipped a slow rain of plankton. Global warming researchers from Wales sawed unsuspecting through its small, drab and unremarkable shell to tell its age, counting its rings like a tree’s. An unfortunate aspect of our work was that the clam died.
2. I once worked eight years in the deep Midwest at a job I hated in a town known only for the invention of barbed wire and GM corn. The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad ran right through it. Freight trains would wake me at ungodly hours, wailing like banshees, long into the seamy night, shaking the floorboards and the raddled window sashes in the clapboard houses.
3. The last glacier of the last Ice Age passed through the city where I live now, scouring all beneath. Just west of here, it stopped. The country beyond has hilltops, views, variety, a sense of perspective. To us the glacier left the shriven plain, the sand and clay I wrestle with each summer, planting annuals. Ten thousand years have passed and still, this far north, winter is a spiritual exercise, weight- training for the soul.
4. The Roto-Rooter Man tries doggedly but fails to fix the trammeled drain. He blames it on the trees, their greedy roots. Sober for twelve years, he says he’s gone back to the drink. Was it the blizzard? I think, the freezing rain? Too many drains? After that visit he vanishes, answers no more calls.
5. My son, five, wants to know why God, who could choose to make us live forever, lets us die. It’s not kind of him, he reasons, puzzled, beginning to be aggrieved.
6. I know Tylenol and temperatures and loose teeth. I know mounds of corn snow and blebbed ice. I know whitegraybrown. I know Christmas lights in the dark. I know chapped lips.
7. A ten-year-old in Mexico glues his hand to the bedstead after Christmas, not wanting the humdrum life of school.
8. That clam and I have things in common: the drabness of our lives, the cold, the hidden muscle. I am reminded of him when the snows keep falling and I weep over onions, endlessly load the dishwasher, endlessly wipe the counters with a dirty cloth, do endless laundry and find underpants and fix holes in knees. As I clean cat vomit and hairballs. Contemplate my small living room endlessly choked by toys.
I know thickened. I know a slowed heart. I know hunger expanding.
9. I want marigolds and mangoes. I want lambs keeping me awake with their bawling and celandines on the airfields and the valleys opening. I want woods full of bluebells. I want the mountains of North Wales: Moel Siabod, Cadair Idris, Tryfan. I wantReit dda(Fine, thanks).
I want figs and custard apples. I want thyme on the hillsides and lemons on the trees. I want to go back to that place in Spain called “Birth of the River World.”
I want a Welsh men’s choir with a thunderous golden organ to tell me, belting out “Cwm Rhondda” like the crowds at rugby matches: Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, Feed me till I want no more (want no more) Feed me till I want no more.
10. I open and inhale saffron, desiring everything to be yellow, orange, red. All winter, I cook foods from abroad. Fry olive oil, turmeric and sweet paprika, sweat shallots. I cook basmati, brown rice, purple, white. Roast squash in oil of French hazelnuts till caramelized. Grate ginger root. Split green cardamom, pour coconut milk. Chop feta cheese and dill. Simmer broth of miso, shiitake, kelp.
11. I listen to the shipping forecast for the British Isles: Dogger, Fisher, Viking, German Bite, Rockall, Shannon, Fastnet, Lundy, Irish Sea. South wind veering west later, gale force eight, occasional showers, rain.
12. Growing up in Wales, I never listened to Welsh men’s choirs. I only noticed how barren and poor the life was: the rain on slate roofs, slag heaps, the mountains bleak and shrouded. I never noticed with what joy they could sing of hardship, ordinariness, endurance.
I never expected happiness,pilgrim in this barren land. This barren, rich life. Our unremarkable existences with their secret, iridescent insides.