If winter is an acerbic harsh, a brittle, than summer is a salve that muddies the body and leans toward ripe. The lilacs are blasted, the million mouthed cups of each stalk sucked dry and lost it’s purple. Instead, a withered brown, as of old lace, old newsprint. Arthritic and cramped like an old person’s hands. The dandelions and violets, too, crumple on their stalk, go to seed, blow away. In their place, every tree is lush and full, the ponds scum over, ducks have their covey of ducklings and the dog snaps at bumblebees and flies. In the evening, june bugs, fat and dumb as blimps, ricochet off any light source they can find, barge against my forehead, tumble away at my hand and lay on the concrete belly upped, legs fingering.
I am proud of the ducklings. The dog, not liking water unless there’s a muskrat or a beaver in it, has ceased to notice they exist and spends his time instead nose deep in the marsh grass and cattails, mad for hunt. I let him do this and watch my ducklings.
Nearly a month ago, I noticed a pair of ducks nesting under a pine tree across the dead-end road from a cornfield. When it rained, they spent all day in the field, flipping feathers and quacking wetly. It seemed strange to me that they weren’t on some pond or gully; I looked about town and realized there are ducks nesting in grocery store parkinglots, in the meridians made of crab grass and young stalky trees. There are ducks nesting in the shrubs around the public library. When I walk the river, the ducks are at play, but they don’t seem to bed there.
So I watched this pair and grew fond. The eggs, bigger than my palm and yellowy, waxy, softer shelled than chicken’s, sat for some two weeks. I leashed the dog, I peeked between grasses, I lowered my nose right to them. But I didn’t touch. I remember some folk wisdom – maybe true, maybe junk – that to touch the eggs or the young would leave my scent, and the parent may reject them after. Let them starve.
This always seemed an unfairness, a tease, to me. I am grounded in the visceral. I touch. I hold. I rub things between my fingers. It seemed unfair that the act of touching – which belied motives only of awe and tenderness – could be taken so wrong. Intentions, to a duck or a wolf, maybe even to tree, matter little.
This morning, four of the eggs lay in the short grass of the ditch, hauled away and across the sidewalk. Each had a small hole, the size of a quarter or maybe larger, and had been sucked or scooped or swallowed hollow. The shells drooped, but ovaled still. Some skunk or raccoon found them, most likely.
I can’t say as I grieved, really. How does one grieve duck stuff before it’s a duck? I eat duck. I’ve got no claims to intimacy. This wasn’t personal. But I paused, fingered now (brave, I can touch what is already blasted) the broken shell, and then I walked on.
Life on this level has more to do with economy than ethics.
But of the ducklings – black and yellow, fuzzed like toys, brilliant eyed – swimming now I am proud.
Peace, too, or stillness, I think of as a visceral thing. A palpable, corporeal thing. Fleshed and boned, really. A soothing, maybe, or a release. And I wonder if the urge to touch peace might injure it, I wonder at the efficacy of the intention. If, like the wild things, my best efforts might do more to harm than to nurture.
Uncovering the character, sin by crime, turned out to be a revelation of how little my intentions mattered. Much of the harm I have done I did not mean to do. Most of my errors are of the omissive, rather than the activated, kind. The times I didn’t show up. The friendships I neglected. The opportunities wasted. (One woman at a fourth step meeting paused, midsentence, and began to cry. There’s just so much wasted, she said…I wasted everything…)
And maybe this is why so many of us balk at at, why it feels so offensive: we don’t want to think ourselves defective, or sinners, or maladjusted. We were, after all, doing the best that we could. Our tendency is to recoil and protect, defend our own feelings.
It is difficult to imagine that those feelings themselves are defective. Flies in the face of self-preservation, let alone human decency. But as we uncover, sin by crime, year on year, day on day, we pass from that basic inventory of step four and confession of step five to feeling in step six.
It is typical, in those earlier steps, to equate our ‘character defects’ with the list of harms done. Everything I did was a defect of character. But to see what needs to be removed, we have to dive a little deeper, into the underlying patterns, the substrata of our emotional landscape.
And I think this is why we stumble, why we get confused. It is one thing to make a list of our wrongs and be willing to have those acts rectified. It is another thing entirely to delve into the psyche and sift. To pull out, by the root of the nerves, vein wise, things that have made us who we are.
Many people attain some sobriety. Many do everything they are asked to do, including that wretched inventory and prayer and service and sponsorship and meetings. Yet they wonder, with all this prayer and soul searching, when they’ll get to touch peace. When they pray, when they meditate, when they soul search, what is revealed is depression, agitation, anxieties and deep wounds rather than god. How many of us, too, have some primary wound, some deep identity scar, that ends up being the thing that sends us back out to relapse, or keeps us hovering in misery. Abuse victims hang there. War vets can hang there. Souls with depression or anxiety – whether it preceded the addiction or slowly grew as the addiction grew – seem to express a kind of dullness, or disaffection, or dwindling faith in the process.
Of course this is the yawning gap, the philosopher’s stone, the thing that laughs at answers. God, too, has to do with economy rather than ideals. What is revealed at this level are things like our belief systems, our core center, our emotional standards. One of those beliefs probably has to do with fairness and peace – seeing it as a kind of enlightened state to reach, an end to suffering, a day when we won’t be so fucked up anymore. There are others: the myth of the perfect relationship, scorn for middling status, the belief we are different than others or that some people deserve the pain they get, a lottery style answers, quick fixes, and a god that is understandable. Perhaps, in us soul hanging ones, also thoughts such as ‘it’ll never be better’, I’m worthless, unloveable, broken; this is as good as it gets.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in some of his mindfulness books, actually uses that phrase not as a grindstone but as a relief. This is all there is, or at least all we can manage. Willingness, then, becomes a kind of consenting to be where we already are. Honesty suggests that we have known, have touched, some moments of peace. Sobriety thus far is a kind of peace. A friend reminded me yesterday that there were, even in the midst of my heaviest alcoholism, flashes of insight and moments of rest. The conversion and change that comes with sobriety has prompted me to lump everything that came before as hell. There was hell. But there were also good people, sweet afternoons, minutes where I felt alive. Perhaps the issue is not how to touch peace, but how to allow ourselves to be touched. To recognize that some of those thought and emotional patterns are the very things barring it’s entrance.