Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What Was Better

What was better then

Than to crush a leaf or a herb
Between you palms,

Then wave it slowly, soothingly
Past your mouth and nose

And breathe?

- Seamus Heaney, "A Herbal"

* * *

A prideful thing: my children refer to him simply as Seamus. As in, "I'm reading Seamus' Beowulf." Or, "Was reading some Seamus last night." Such things make me glad.

* * * 

I'll ask, is there anything better than crushing a leaf and slowly breathing it in? The oils in the leaf are released and your nose becomes the conduit for those smells to touch deep centers of memory: I know this place. I have been here before. And if the place is already familiar, known to you through daily encounters, then that fresh perfume renews your vows to that place and you know your part in it. The simple, almost absent-minded pleasure of taking in a fresh, green smell - mint, grass, hay, woodruff, lavender, creeping thyme - has the ability to place you outside of time, to hold you for the length of time it takes to breathe in and out, above past, present and future, to arrest your thoughts and bring you to an unnameable, wordless understanding of your life, all life and your place in it. And as quick as another breath it fades. But it was there and your body and mind know it now and become alert to the possibility of its return.

My father had the habit of taking a handful of grasses and rubbing them slowly in hands while he talked to you. He'd occasionally bring them to his nose, take in a deep breath and go back to rolling them back and forth in his hands. It was a habit he learned from his grandfather, a farmer at the turn of the 20th century, who, it was said, spoke few words, but could listen for days. His name was Alphonso Burdell Child, known simply as A.B.. Taciturn, hard working, gentle, a church-goer, A.B. passed along to his grandson the quiet habit of taking in what pleasure there was and so stay rooted in that moment listening to others talk, or to the wind whistling a bit. Somewhere near Castledawson, in County Derry, around the same time, Seamus Heaney learned that same habit. In time it became part of a poem to that place.  I learned it from my father and when I read Seamus' poem I was held, caught in the memories of green oils and my father as a young man. I could see him and smell the grass and time was nothing to me.

Poems and crushed leaves are the same thing: they hold you for a moment, lift you out of the toil and moil, and anoint you with their fresh relief.

All of which is to say, that the means of renewal are ever at hand. You simply need to reach out and breathe.

* * *

It is green today. It is that deeply saturated green infused with yellow that only appears in April. It is a rain soaked green. It looks like a velvet of moss on cool, wet rock. When you walk on it the ground gives an inch or two (or so it seems). The world, for now, is lush and cool, inviting, unconcerned with anything whatsoever, and everything what so ever is at peace in it.

My yard is a playground for crows, fat, lazy rabbits and a neighborhood cat who likes to sun himself on the drive. The tree outside my window is active with cardinals building a nest. Red-winged blackbirds, juncos, starlings, sparrows and swifts pierce the view as well. It is a reminder to not focus on the self too much, to not build up thoughts about the problems and trials of the day. For it is green and wet and Spring is promising to stay this time and though you know it won't, you indulge its optimism and feel it leak into your bones.

Old men crush leaves and herbs and grasses and so reclaim the green of their days. They draw in the freshness of it and for a moment they are not old, but wise and lithe and strong to know the way leaves smell when crushed. The green of April is the same: not old, but wise, renewed in a breath, a relief from what is weathered and worn.

It never leaves me, this notion that our cure, our balm is always at hand. It is in the paths of swifts rising like smoke and sparks; it is in the tiny purple and white flowers insisting upon their rights in all this green; it is in a half-feral cat making himself at home. It is also in the eye willing to notice such things, the mind that alerts the eye to be on the lookout for the return of a green and fragrant idle: cityside, exurb, emptyfield, no matter - it surrounds.

* * *

This green will harden and then brown out. With each day's turning everything changes, if only by degrees and it takes months to notice. But it is in those degrees of change, imperceptible, persistent that the cure for what ails you remains ready and at hand. The problem we fucked fuckers encounter is a problem of too much mind, too much pacing back and forth over a thought, a slight, a wound, a betrayal, a tragedy, a missed chance to be who we thought ourselves to be. While I will never suggest that anyone stop thinking or learning, it is not, on its own, an absolute good. Context matters, and if you cannot see the paths of birds, or know enough to stop and crush a leaf in your hand for no reason other than the pleasure it brings, then you have trapped yourself in your pain, or worry, or fear.

To know which leaves smell best is to know something other than your pain or worry or fear and that, my best beloved, is the start of something that can carry you for a while while you regain your footing.

It is right at hand. Crush a leaf or herb between your palms. Breathe, and you will understand.

* * *

May your well run deep.


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