“I had expected her to sink or get swept away
But she became stuck in a tide pool
Swirling between the rocks”
-Ali Liebegott, The Summer of Dead Birds
As a kid walking along the beach, I’d pick up pieces of driftwood and throw them out into the waves. I kept expecting them to float away. To go off into the wildness and mystery I somehow felt, out in those swells, and not come back. Then the rolling whitewater pitched them up onto the wet sand. I was surprised. As surprised, maybe, as when someone first told me that the smokestacks which went in my drawings of ocean liners and factories didn’t actually clean anything. They pushed the smoke higher up so it would come down somewhere else. So that we, standing right next to it, didn’t have to smell or feel what was happening. Instead we got that beautiful cloud feathering out into a clear sky.
I think I wanted things to go away. To be lost, let go of, to disappear. In her poem, Liebegott is throwing into the sea the body of a dead bird. Sending it, maybe, to the land of the dead. I remember wondering, the first time I went to a funeral, what all the heavy stone was for—as though these who had been our loved ones would get back up if we didn’t weigh them down. Hold them where we’d put them, away and out of sight. Untouched. Unspoiled. Forever. But this is the land of the dead, isn’t it, just like it’s the land of the living.
I wanted things to go away, but I wanted to keep them, too. To hold onto them, this campfire with my family, this friendship, this taste of ice cream. I wonder if both these desires—for things to go away, to be no more and be forgotten; for things to go on, unchanging—come from a place in my heart that is struggling with transformations. That is still learning that there is often also here, that the bodies and the bones don’t go away, though they crumble and come apart and become part of other things. And just now that doesn’t feel like a sad thing.
The ocean, maybe, was teaching me. Just look at the sand and the driftwood. The wind. The grass growing up along the dunes, flickering, like low flames on old coals that once were branches.