Can you diagnose fear? The red tree blooming from uterus to throat. It’s one long nerve, the doctor says. There’s a reason breathing helps, the muscles slackening like a dead marriage. Mine are simple things. Food poisoning in Paris. Hospital lobbies. My husband laughing in another room. (The door closed.) For days, I cradle my breast and worry the cyst like a bead. There’s nothing to pray away. The tree loves her cutter. The nightmares have stopped, I tell the doctor. I know why. They stopped because I baptized them. This is how my mother and I speak of dying–the thing you turn away by letting in. I’m tired of April. It’s killed our matriarchs and, in the back yard, I’ve planted an olive sapling in the wrong soil. There is a droopiness to the branches that reminds me of my friend, the one who calls to ask what’s the point, or the patients who come to me, swarmed with misery and astonishment, their hearts like newborns after the first needle. What now, they all want to know. What now. I imagine it like a beach. There is a magnificent sand castle that has taken years to build. A row of pink seashells for gables, rooms of pebble and driftwood. This is your life. Then comes the affair, nagging bloodwork, a freeway pileup. The tide moves in. The water eats your work like a drove of wild birds. There is debris. A tatter of sea grass and blood from where you scratched your own arm trying to fight the current. It might not happen for a long time, but one day you run your fingers through the sand again, scoop a fistful out, and pat it into a new floor. You can believe in anything, so why not believe this will last? The seashell rafter like eyes in the gloaming. I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in. I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.
Published in the print edition of the New Yorker September 28, 2020, issue.
Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.
*Whitman himself had never seen the mating of eagles but wrote the poem – with much reworking – from a description given him by the naturalist John Burroughs.
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.