I think human beings must have faith or must look for faith, otherwise life is empty, empty. To live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind. -Anton Chekhov
There are stretches of road that always seem to take forever.
At least, that is true for this traveler.
The road between Hill City and Aitkin, for example. It is my least favorite part of the journey between home and the Twin Cities. I think it has something to do with the fields on both sides of the highway. Give me trees over fields any day. The two-lane road is generally pretty straight and flat, but I’ve had more close calls with fools passing on that stretch than I’ve ever had on the freeways farther south.
On Saturday, as I traveled south along that highway, a few miles north of Aitkin I noticed hundreds of brown cranes in the lush, green fields dancing, strutting, and having a feast on their way to somewhere else. It looked like they were celebrating a perfect July day. There is a legend in Asian literature that human souls are carried to Heaven on the wings of cranes. Since I’d just attended a memorial service for the husband of a dear friend that morning, matters of life and death were weighing more heavily on my mind than usual. I thought about that legend as I passed, and smiled.
Signs and symbols. They are everywhere. Even along roads we wish we didn’t have to travel. We simply have to pay attention.
Maybe, in the end, this is what Faith looks like.
Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety.
A large family of geese was having a party on the river this morning. I heard their wild shouts and splashing sounds right before the rosy glow illuminating the bedroom burst into sunlight. The bedroom windows were open and the intoxicating, familiar, river smells outside kept me where I was, inhaling deeply and remembering.
After a warm, stuffy, night at the other end of the cabin, I’d moved to a different spot to finish the night with better air circulation. It is the room I slept in a lot growing up. Just big enough for two double beds, two blue-eyed sisters, and doting grandparents whispering good nights in the dark as frogs croaked and turtles clucked and loons called out to one another. It was the best way to sleep. The best.
Scent memory is the most amazing gift we’re given. How can it be that decades can pass and a particular scent places a person right back where they were decades before? And so, this evening after thinking about it all day, I’m wondering if it was not the geese but a scent memory instead. Delivered by an old ghost stopping by for a visit with his graying granddaughter. Checking in, as he sometimes does, in quiet moments when she stops working at the cabin long enough to feel his presence. Nudging her to breathe deeply and be grateful for the sights and sounds and smells outside her window.
At dusk, they congregate in the field across the river close enough to the shore to make a quick get-away if a fox comes around. At dawn, they make their way back to the water and swim in long, straight lines, one parent in front and the other taking up the rear. In mid-July, the goslings are nearly as large as their parents. It has been a good summer to raise goose children on the Bowstring river. The kids are strong swimmers with large, healthy bodies and long necks. Most of the day, the families parade back and forth in front of the dock, pecking at vegetation beneath the surface.
A decade ago, we lived in an old house that fronted a small lake right in the center of a town on the prairie. In the summer, we’d walk around the lake and see families of geese there, too. Most of the geese who bred there had lousy attitudes. They honked and squawked and chased small children. If a dog on a leash got too close, they’d lose their minds. By late summer, every blade of grass on the shore had been eaten and the ground was bare. Some of the geese appeared to have either broken or deformed wings. They fought with each other and left their droppings in yards. By autumn, we were glad to see them leave with all their relations.
I was thinking about those geese this morning while I picked wild blueberries on a ridge where there was just enough breeze to keep the deer flies away. It’s a good year for berries, thanks to all the heat and rain we’ve had. I love to pick. Mostly, I like the solitude and repetitive nature of picking. Walk, stoop, gather. Walk some more, stoop again, gather some more. I like the sounds the birds make when they don’t know a human is around and the smell of ripe blueberries in an ice cream pail. I don’t think I’d enjoy picking blueberries at a farm the way some people do. Too easy. Too many people walking where they shouldn’t crushing perfectly good berries would make me crabby. Give me a Sunday morning on a ridge alone with my thoughts and the deer flies any day.
There are blueberries, and then, there are blueberries.
There are geese, and then, there are geese, too.
There are not many absolutes in this world. In fact, there are really only three. We are born. We live our lives.
And then, we die.
Oh, wait. There’s one more.
If you are the last woman to leave a pot luck dinner, you always bring the orphaned crock pots and spoons home with you to wash and reunite with their rightful owners. That’s what women do. We can’t help ourselves. We’d want someone else to do it for us.
That’s what I am doing this week. Eventually, my counters will be cleared of the items that don’t belong in my drawers and cupboards. As a class, we’ll figure it out together. We always have.
The other thing I’m doing this week is looking through all the photos that were taken during our fortieth class reunion last weekend at the golf course. My smile muscles are sore as I scroll through them on our Facebook group page. Each face holds memories of when we were young. Who we were then. By your fortieth, that is all that matters when you gather. Those memories. Not what you “do” for a living, or where you live, or who you voted for. Thank goodness.
Those memories are more precious than gold.
For the reunion, we made a list of the ones we’ve lost. We placed flowers and candles. This is risky. First, you always worry that you’ve missed someone. And then you joke that you hope nobody on this list shows up and says, “what am I doing on this list?” That would be awkward, to say the least.
Well, here’s some good news. He didn’t show up, but Fred’s not dead.
Crock pots, after all, are easily replaced.
Old friends? Not so much.
Back when the high school had a lawn and a canopy of large trees instead of a parking lot, we’d walk there and wait for the big yellow school bus to arrive, swatting at deer flies and each other with beach towels. Ours was the generation whose mothers never asked whether we wanted to participate in an activity. We just got signed up if they thought it would be good for us. Like it was their civic duty, or something. Every summer, that meant swimming lessons.
Summer vacation is always longer for moms than it is for kids. All the stinky tennis shoes at the door and the grape soda rings on the kitchen counters sent them over the edge. By the middle of July, our moms were seriously over it and just wanted some peace. Handing us a towel and pointing toward the bus gave them a few blessed hours without any whining or doors slamming. Swimming lessons were a win-win. Moms got their houses back and kids learned how not to drown. And so, from every house in the neighborhood, off we were sent to freeze our behinds in Deer Lake and learn to swim.
Next weekend, in my home town, families will gather. Friends will, too. There will be music and dancing, jingle dresses and drumming. Beer will be spilled. Bingo will be called. Fleas will be marketed. Carnival rides will squeak. The church ladies will serve lovely, comforting foods like turkey, wild rice hot dish, and homemade pie in church basements. There will be a parade, rain or shine. Fireworks will explode in the night sky. The Wild Rice Festival exists only because of careful planning and whole lot of hard work. Money raised by the Lions during the three-day festival goes directly back into the community for projects like the swimming program. It was true when I was a kid riding the bus to lessons; it’s still true today.
And so, if you are one of those kids from long ago who also didn’t drown, thank a Lion for that. Then, buy a button because you might just win some cash. Eat more than one burger. Play Bingo. Throw caution to the wind and go a little nuts. It’s the Rice Festival, after all!
Do it for the moms who are ready for school to start already. The ones scrubbing purple rings off their counter tops and muttering as they trip over shoes in the hall. Really. Just do it. So their kids don’t drown. I think it’s your civic duty. Or something.
It’s a win-win no matter how you cut it.