It was June of 1997. My favorite place on the riverbank. “C'mon, smile for me,” my boyfriend said. I lifted the sides of my mouth. Some of the tension ebbed away. It was hard to be upset when I was here. I had moved into my own place by then, but he wouldn't let me go. Relationships are work, he'd say. Over and over. His fingers digging into my shoulder.
The following year. Same place, same season. That boyfriend now banished from my life. Banished, but now obsessed. His grip on reality had completely shredded. I saved the incoherent threats that he left on my answering machine. Just in case they were needed as evidence. I would soon be leaving for Arizona. A safer place. The turmoil in my heart. The river's voice telling me, Go. You will be back one day. I will be here. Always.
The sound of footsteps and voices behind me. I turned to look. A couple stood there. The woman had her arms wrapped around herself. Her eyes were wide and terrified as she looked all around her. She gasped when she saw me. “Aren't you scared to be out here all alone?”
I smiled and shook my head. “No.”
A spasm seized her face. Fear mingled with contempt. They moved on without another word.
I smiled again, to myself. And whispered, “No.”
Spring's awakening softens into summer's daydream. I melt into the warm soil. Summer is lushness, indolence. I used to believe that people who preferred summer over all other seasons lacked personality. It's the easiest season to love. But this year, I allow myself that guilty pleasure. Luxuriate in every precious day. All too soon it will be finished.
Why is it that we so often make things more difficult than they need to be? Who made up the rule that only that which comes from struggle is valuable?
I now live in my little cabin. I walk softly within these walls. Sweep my gaze and run my hands over the work I've done. Cosmetic work, but still arduous. The dark-stained ceiling and the whitewashed shiplap walls. Yes, I really did all of that. Yes, this paradise is really mine. My mother unearths a couple of storage tubs from her garage. The things I'd saved before I moved away all those years ago. I find the black and white photo of me by the river. My mother had it framed. I hold it in my hands for a long while. If I hadn't been driven away, I wouldn't have had the incredible life I've had. The nineteen years with Monsieur Riso. The travels. The most important thing that I've learned: if life is putting up roadblocks, stop trying to tear them down. Take the detours. Go.
Summer. That feeling of passing through the gateway to Heaven on Earth.
A night, I lie awake and watch the forest lights outside my window. Sharp flickers of lightning, like knife slashes. The languid blinking of fireflies. Eerie, drifting beacons inviting me into the night's mystery.
In late June, a robin builds a nest in my bedroom window. At first, she fails. The material she gathers falls to the ground. I try to help, first opening the window a little more, then closing it. Finally she succeeds. The eggs hatch. If I stand on tiptoes, I can see the little beaks poking out of the nest. Tiny, shrill voices emanate from within. The male robin stands guard in the trees. If I get too close to the window, he flies towards me, his neck feathers raised in outrage.
One afternoon, the parents are absent. I walk to the window, startling one of the babies. It flies out of the nest and lands on the ground. It does not move. My heart withers. I go outside and stand over it. It stares upwards. If I come too close, it opens its beak as if to bite me. I lift my eyes to the trees. Where are you, parents? I look down again. Leave it alone. You're not helping it by helping it. It has to learn how to survive. Let it go.
In the other world, people gather, high on reclaimed freedom. I retreat to the trails. My heart once again battered. My mind a maelstrom. The same lesson comes back to haunt us. Different incarnations of the same phantom. We only ever harm ourselves by the choices we make. Others cannot hurt us without our decision to let them in.
Feel how you damn well feel like feeling. Feel it all. The deluge. The ebb. The exhaustion. Walk it off, is what coaches often tell you when you injure yourself. Mud-splattered legs, soggy shoes. We never truly get over anything. Do we?
I look at the ground. My heart stops. A raven feather lies by the side of the trail. I bend over to pick it up. A single croak is released from the treetops. I look up and whisper, “Thank you.”
I move along, twirling the feather. We process, assimilate, shift. Alter our behavior. For better or worse. We teach ourselves how to survive.
Every hike is a story. The twists and turns and ups and downs of the trail. The chance encounters with animals I've only seen dead in the middle of the road. I stop and observe. The porcupine. The baby skunk. They scuttle along, indifferent to my presence.
I pass by lotus-filled lakes and tannin-stained streams. Through forests of pine and hardwood. Until I get to the end. Even though the view is different on the way back, it somehow always seems shorter.
I gather serenity from the wilderness and build a sanctuary of my presence. Stand guard. Until I can discern who is worthy, no one is getting in. In the deepest, darkest corner of my labyrinth, I corner the oldest of phantoms. It looms over me. No matter how many lost souls you try to heal with your love, it won't make up for not having saved your father. I shake my head and sigh. It's not my job, anymore. It never has been. The time has come for you to go.
August. I write by the light of a sun tinted by the smoke of distant wildfires. A coppery light that further dilutes the boundaries of memory.
It was last summer, around this time, that I crossed paths with some little girls on the trail that runs behind my property. They came out of the woods next to the meadow, flowers in their hair and sticks in their grasp. I recognized that look in their eyes. All feral mischief. Were they pretending to be fairies or witches or squaws as I used to do when I was their age? What spells had they just finished casting to the sky? What incantations had they composed and sung to the trees? They walked up to me and introduced themselves and said they were part of another family that had owned a cottage here since the time of my grandpa.
“I used to play out here, too, when I was your age.”
“We know,” the older one said.
They headed towards their cottage and I headed up the path. I had reached the middle of the meadow when I saw the hearts. They were etched in the trail every few steps.
Deep breath. Close your eyes. Open your heart. Make a wish and let it go. The dreamy drift of a bloom's dissolution. Such beauty now in pieces. Transported on a breath – a breath not taken away, but unleashed without reservation. A passionate dissemination of new possibilities. Now: surrender to the mystery. Wishes are always granted, but not always in the form you expect. A gentle tumble into fertile soil. Earth's soft embrace. And it all begins again.
And so I wish to stop wishing.
And so it comes to pass.
And so I discover that I already have everything I've ever wanted.