When my husband was a freshman at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana he had a friend from Kodiak, Alaska. The guy, he said, told a lot of outlandish stories. They involved ice-climbing in harrowing conditions, protecting fresh-killed deer from brown bears, being in small boats on big water, catching enough salmon in one night to fill the back of a pickup bed. At the time Dean thought his stories were unlikely, that nobody’s life was really like that. It wasn’t until we’d lived in Alaska for a few years that it occurred to Dean that his friend’s stories might be true.
The Alaskana section in the library where I work is full of books with these kinds of stories. There are whole sections on dog mushing and bush piloting, on mountaineering and homesteading in the wilderness. There are stories of people who’ve made it through whatever dangerous predicament they’ve found themselves in and plenty of stories about folks who weren’t so lucky. We’ve lived here long enough that we even have a few adventure stories of our own, like the time I had to tromp through the snow with a flashlight in the middle of the night to rescue my dog from a neighbor’s traps or the time Dean and a friend had to be towed across Cook Inlet in our 20-foot skiff in rough water.
A story is boring without some kind of conflict, without some hint of danger, without tension. That’s what was drilled into me in graduate school when I studied fiction writing. What else will get the reader to turn the page? What will get them to read the next chapter?
Dean and I have been watching Poldark, a Masterpiece Theater series from a few years ago. It takes place in Cornwall in the years after the American Revolution. The setting is stunning and the story is full of romance and drama, tension and danger, but we’re beginning to get bored. Last night we decided to skip the swashbuckling and watch Detectorists. The quiet story line and the smart, subtle humor were just right. We wanted to watch the next episode not because we were dying to know what was going to happen next but because we knew the writing was smart. We knew we’d be made to laugh and we’d be touched by some bit of tenderness we weren’t expecting. There is tension in the overall story arc, but it’s not the thing that kept us hooked.
It’s true that something needs to happen in a story. A situation needs to arise that causes a character to change. Sometimes that change comes from external forces and sometimes it comes from within. With all of that in mind, I want to tell you the story of my Wednesday.
I didn’t sleep well on Tuesday night. My mind was wound up and I was unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet it. I dipped in and out through most of the night with dreaming and waking running together until about an hour before the alarm sounded at 5:30am.
Each morning for the past fourteen days we’ve gone through a short qi gong routine called the Eight-Pieces Brocade. It takes about twenty minutes to complete and it involves six repetitions of eight different moves. It’s gentle exercise and while it’s not physically or mentally demanding it does require focus. Between the breath and the movement there’s a lot to pay attention to and I start to get the moves wrong when my mind wanders. Dean, who’s been a qi gong teacher and practitioner for years says that it can take a lifetime to master these moves, so the requirement of focus never goes away.
After my fitful sleep I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do qi gong. I didn’t want to go to work. I was tired and the day’s demands felt like too much. I got up anyhow and fed the dogs and put another log on the fire while Dean got the coffee ready. Then we pushed the coffee table out of the way and started our qi gong practice.
All night I’d been thinking. I wasn’t worried about anything in particular. I wasn’t rehashing past mistakes as I’ve been known to do in the middle of the night. My mind was just going. I don’t know what you call that kind of state. There’s day dreaming and there’s sleep dreaming but what is it called when your mind goes all night and the thoughts aren’t fully engaged thoughts but they’re also not dreaming?
Maybe it was because my mind was finally tired of itself that for first time since we’d started doing this qi gong routine, I was fully there with it. For twenty minutes my mind was not flitting from one thing to another. By the time I was finished with it I’d completely forgotten that I’d been awake for most of the night. It’s like my mind finally got the quiet it needed.
This week the mornings were noticeably lighter, and when I went out to scrape the windshield and start the car before work on Wednesday I didn’t need a headlamp. There was a break in the clouds above the mountains where the sun was rising and I wanted to run back in the house for the camera. I always want to capture the scene but it’s never possible. The colors don’t translate. The scope of it all never really comes through. Besides, I’d have been late to work if I’d started taking photos.
In the time it took me to scrape the windows the colors in the sky had changed and by the time I’d driven to the top of our road they’d changed even further. By the time I passed McNeil Canyon school the sky was every shade of violet. Dark to the west where it was cloudy and lighter in the east. By then I was past the point of wanting to take a photo. What I wanted instead was to stop the car, stand out in the cool air and soak in all that violet. The roads were not in great shape though, and there was not a great place to pull over, and I still didn’t want to be late to work. So I kept driving. By the time I got to town the sky was gray again, but I felt charged by that violet light, by the qi gong. I’m sure the coffee had a bit to do with it too.
Everything at work was fine. I helped a man find some articles he needed. I read reviews of new books. I did the normal library circulation tasks that I do all the time. But it all felt just a little bit different. Like during the qi gong I’d done earlier in the day, my mind stayed on task. I wasn’t thinking ahead or behind.
Over my lunch break I went to Save U More to pick up a few groceries. Apples were on sale, which pretty much never happens, and they had a good deal on some nice looking grapefruit too. I’m curious to know if anyone else has had the experience of finding themselves singing along to a song they haven’t heard in over a decade while in the produce section of Save U More. It happens to me regularly and on this day the song was Eddy Grant’s 1982 hit “Electric Avenue” which is impossible to not bop along to. I bopped on through checkout, at least in my mind, and still had enough time for a walk on the beach.
The tide was coming in when I was at Bishop’s Beach and I set out walking west for ten minutes on the part where the ocean had melted the snow away on the previous high tide. The sand was firm beneath my feet and I walked along to the beat and the lyrics that were on repeat in my head.
Several yards ahead of me, dozens of crows occupied a small section of beach. I’ve been watching the Bishop’s Beach crows on my walks this winter and have witnessed them doing all sorts of things. Sometimes they loiter around until just after the tide starts to recede and then they spread out along the tide line looking to see what the sea left behind for them. And I’ve witnessed them playing on the wind on especially gusty days. I’ve seen them gathering up around bald eagles as they’re scavenging on something that’s washed up, trusting that the eagle will leave a morsel or two behind for them. But on this day I couldn’t tell what the crows were up to until I got close.
On this day about fifty crows were bathing in melt water as it spilled out of a small ravine and headed toward the ocean. They splashed and fluffed and sputtered and my presence did not bother them in the least. Their singular focus on the water was impressive and while I don’t know that I’m qualified to give name to a crow’s inner workings, from my perspective their behavior looked a lot like joy.
I walked back to my car with so many questions. Every time I go to the beach I see the crows, and except for on the coldest of days there is always some fresh water flowing toward the ocean. But this was an epic bird bath event. What was it about the water in that moment? How did their behavior influence one another? Did they all feel the need for a bath, see the water running from the melting snow and settle all together, at once, to bathe there? Or did one start the whole thing and then another and then another and then after a while what had started out as a single bird enjoying a bath turn into a whole community of crows, a whole murder of them, doing this thing together? Was it something about the temperature? Were their bellies full enough that for a while they didn’t have to think about eating? Had they experienced something that necessitated a good bath?
All I know is that those bathing crows were a part of what turned out to be a particularly good day. And it’s had me thinking about the way we move through life. Not every day starts out with a violet sky and it’s not every day that apples are on sale at Save-U-More, but most every day there is something worthy of our attention, something to be curious about. It’s not always scaling mountains or crossing rushing rivers, but that’s okay. Tension might be overrated.
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.