West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Keeping the chaos at bay

They say that wood warms you twice, once when you cut it and once when you burn it. I think “they” in this case must be people who’ve never really heated with wood, because those of us who’ve grown up with it know that wood warms you seven or eight times: when you cut the trees, when you saw it to length, when you split it, when you stack it, when you carry it into the house and brush the damp splinters off the arms of your jacket and sweep the floor. This weekend I spent three hours stacking wood at a friend’s house as the sun rose and stained the half-frozen lake, and I still wasn’t warm. But it was something to be done, something useful and lasting, and I could, for a time, feel worthwhile and alive.

And here I take another step into the murky waters of confessional blogging, which is something I swore I’d never do. Hell, here goes. Matt is leaving me.

It feels like I’ve barely seen him since I got back to Connecticut. He’s been working two jobs and he would be asleep when I left the house and half the time I’d be asleep when he got home. I’d asked him if there was any way he could change his schedule so we could at least have dinner together more than once a week. He said maybe. And then Saturday afternoon maybe became not at all, when he sat down at the table and dragged out all the tired cliches: I think you’re a wonderful person but we’re not right for each other. I haven’t been happy for a while. I hope we can still be friends.

I said we could still be friends but not for a while, and certainly not sharing a house. Not after. I asked if he could be out by the end of the month and he said probably. So that’s it. Two years, almost to the day. Actually I think it was our anniversary, though neither of us was really good about keeping track. (That pronoun again, us. It’s going to be difficult to stop using.) As he spoke I had a sense of things crumbling, shattering, hurtling into the long dark. I thought about how life, in the biologist’s sense of the noun, is an island of order in a sea of chaos. From the little light that reaches us from our star, enough is captured, bound as energy in matter, that the thin scrim of the planet’s surface teems with life. How is it possible? The entropy of the universe is always increasing: things tend to a state of maximum disorder. Eventually the clock winds down, the stars burn out. The very hum of molecular motion, the last heat in the universe, eventually will come to a stop. But life thumbs its nose at entropy. Life manages, by capturing a fraction of the energy that passes through, to build a pattern out of disorder. It’s temporary, of course. When a single life ends, entropy takes over fast, returning the molecules of life to their constituent, arbitrary parts. When all life ends, it’ll be much the same. Whether the thin green shawl of this planet is sheared off in a gust of solar wind as the sun explodes, or whether we hasten the process along with nuclear winter, eventually it’s going to end. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, carbon to carbon. We are fortunate to be alive, to be these particular configurations of molecules that we are, but it’s going to end. That’s a given, by the very laws of Nature. I always used to laugh at those scenes in horror movies when somebody screams, “we’re all going to die!” Yeah, no shit, Sherlock.

Well, I had tried to build an island of order with Matt. And it didn’t work. And it’s fortunate, I suppose, that things ended now when we’re still civil, when all the assets we have to divide are a mattress and a couple bookshelves. And I have my health, my freedom, my small savings. And I can tell myself these things forty times a day without effect. I close my eyes and all I see is stars traveling outward in the vast dark.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Home for the Holidays

Sarah Orne Jewett called Maine “the country of the pointed firs,” but to me it’s the pine trees that really mark the passage. In the weak slanted light of afternoon, the tall white pines on the border stand like sentinels, with their top branches bent by the prevailing winds. They’ve stood there since long before my birth, and with luck they’ll outlive me. Crossing the iron bridge at Kittery that separates New Hampshire from Maine, watching the sun catch in the pines on the far shore, I always feel a certain lift in the heart. It’s like the sensation of the scent of land from far out to sea: this is home, this is where I belong as much as I belong anywhere. The idea of belonging has been on my mind a lot lately, as I struggle to readjust to this latitude, this language, this climate.

In the Atlanta airport on the way back from Costa Rica I ate lunch in a crowded food court, watching the planes land and take off on the ocean of asphalt around the terminal. I ended up sharing a table with two young children and a woman I took at first for their mother. A few minutes of conversation established that she was their nanny, accompanying them from their mother’s house in California to their father in Alabama for the holidays.

“I have only one Mommy, but I have two Daddies,” the little boy informed me. He couldn’t have been more than four. The nanny was fighting a losing battle with his dripping nose.

“I have two Mommies and two Daddies,” I told them, eliciting wide-eyed stares from the boy and his older sister, whose age I guessed at five or six. They asked where I lived. “I don’t live with either of them. I live with my boyfriend.”

“Do you have any children?” the woman asked.

“Oh god no! I’m not settled down enough.”

“I’ve got three. My husband divorced me when I was pregnant with the third.”

Her cell phone rang and she answered in Spanish. I tried not to eavesdrop, but the language was like music to me among the guttural, sloppy accents of English. After they left I wiped the rest of the crumbs off the table and headed for the boarding gate. Airports anywhere have the same stale and desperate ambience; a by-product, I think, of so many people who would rather be elsewhere.

I flew into Hartford and Matt met me at baggage claim with my warmest coat and mittens. Barely a day later I was on the bus up to Maine to spend the holidays with my extended family, shuttling from my mom’s house to my stepmom’s. I am so fortunate to have such a dear boyfriend and so many loving relatives. It would be easier if we all lived a little closer to each other, though. Everywhere I go I am missing somewhere else.

A few days after Christmas my high school classmates organized a last-minute 10th reunion. For the most part, it was funny how much people had followed the roles they’d set out to play ten years ago. The fourth-generation lobsterman had his own boat and traps now; the sweet shy girl who’d loved children was a nursery school teacher; the guy voted “most likely to succeed” was a corporate lawyer in New York and (of course) too busy to attend. There were some wild cards: the phenomenal musician, once a wallflower and now ultra-stylish, doing an M.D./Ph.D. in Alabama. The lone punk who, instead of mainstreaming himself like his classmates, had gotten about eighteen more piercings, died his hair jet black, and decked himself out in black leather everything. (In the darkened bar it was hard to tell, but I think he was also wearing flame-colored contacts.) I’m not sure how much I fit people’s expectations. It was always clear, I think, that I would leave the island. My ties here are only tangential, not even reaching back a single generation, and my talents, such as they are, are ill-suited to island life. Yet an odd emotion came over me as I spoke with a classmate who’s now raising two young daughters. She lives just down the street from my father’s office and she told me that she and her children often stop there to chat when they walk past on the way to pre-school. What was it I felt? Just for an instant, jealousy. I’ve had the great luxury of traveling and seeing different cultures and remote corners of the world. What I’m missing is the sense of belonging. If I ever have children, what place will they call home? Will they know their grandfather as anything more than a momentary presence at the holidays?

And now it’s a new year. I’m back in Connecticut, trying to re-establish a sense of belonging here. Fortunately it will be relatively straightforward to convert 2005 to 2006 on all the checks I mis-date in the coming months. Four to five was a trick.