Jeanine and I are sitting at a wobbly table out front of a coffee shop in Portland, Maine. It’s a hot day here, July 1, but we’re in the shade, there’s an occasional breeze, and the brick sidewalk, which spends long months of its life covered in snow, just has an aura of cool.
I brought a book with me, but the world around is way too compelling and will not let me read. A man pushing a shopping cart full of Gatorade sees me watching him: “I keep people hydrated! A drink and a bag of chips for a dollar and a quarter. That’s a good deal, right?” A woman, also pushing a cart, this one stacked with bottled water, shouts to a friend across the street, “They’re a dollar-eighty-eight for a 24-pack! At CVS! Today’s the last day!” A passenger in the front seat of a Jeep sings along to the radio: “Hey, hey, I wanna be a rock star!” Homeless women and men trudge along, with thick tans, dirty backpacks, and the slow, numbed footsteps of elephants. There are dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, teenage girls with iced lattes, millennial males on skateboards flying past at 20 miles per hour, and a small white feather sliding along.
This feather, I think, maybe it’s what’s left of the unlucky seagull selected for slaughter this morning outside the bedroom window at our Air-B-n-B, which is where all the seagulls of Portland seem to gather and, I can only assume from the desperate, strident, blood-thirsty, ceaseless screaming that’s happened at 4:15 every morning since we’ve been here, choose some member of their tribe to be offered to the gods in a brutal and gruesome ritual sacrifice.
I might be wrong, of course. This particular feather on the sidewalk might have nothing to do with all that.
We’re here visiting our daughter, Peyton, who moved here three months ago. She’s off and running in a career, and living in as wide a circle as she can before the commitments of relationship and responsibility that will come later and shrink the radius of possibility. Right now, the epicenter of that still-very-large circle is a fourth-floor apartment, across the street from the Portland Sea Dogs minor-league baseball field, and a sea dog of her own, Emmy Lou, who dearly loves the sea, and also the seaweed, and the sand, and all the other dogs who get to run free at the beach before 9 am.
(And speaking of free, and sea dogs, the baseball Sea Dogs let fans in for free after the sixth inning, and that is how, a couple nights ago, we saw Tim Tebow ground out to first in the top of the ninth. That’s the Tim Tebow, who used to play football for the Denver Broncos and now plays baseball for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, and so I can’t help but wonder, what is it with Tim Tebow and horses? I’m thinking that, one day, he will win the Kentucky Derby.)
Earlier today we walked and swam at Mackworth Island State Park, just north and across the bay. Mackworth Island is a glory land of trees. Maple, oak, large pines, basswood, and what looked to me like the remaining twelve feet of a long-gone American chestnut. I can’t imagine that could be true, over a hundred hot summers and harsh winters after the blight that decimated this great, giant giver of food, lumber, oxygen, and pride. But what remained was massive in diameter and had the twisting, knotted pattern of trunk that chestnuts have, so who knows. Fifteen years ago, I found an old chestnut stump in the forest above our house. It was rotted through entirely, save for the outer ring, two inches thick. I brought it home and took it to my office, where it leans against a wall and offers me something I won’t even try to explain, and probably don’t need to.
And the swimming at Mackworth, in the icy cold water of the North Atlantic. Man, oh man, I do love cold water. I can’t stand it much more than a minute, but that minute is amazing, and the amazement birthed in that minute keeps living in me and extends to most everything else I encounter for the rest of the day. Which may be why I’m so smitten with the world wandering past this coffee shop.
This is a pleasure trip for us, but the shadow of grief is fallen across it, too. A year ago, in April, Jeanine’s brother Marshall spent a weekend in Portland with his daughters Jess and Hannah. That was the last time they saw each other before he died in June, and we have brought with us, for Peyton, a beautiful blown glass vase holding a portion of her Uncle Marshall’s ashes. An artist friend of Marshall’s wife, Michelle, made these vases a few months ago, and Michelle distributed them to us at a gathering, in June, that Peyton was unable to attend.
When Marshall died last summer, our son, Walton, said it felt to him like Marshall had shattered into many pieces, and flown into us, and we would all carry pieces of him – his goodness and his suffering – with us. Now we have these pieces of Marshall, ashes, to release whenever and wherever we decide is right, and these exquisite, graceful vases, pieces of sand, shaped by fire and breath into pieces of art.
We came to Portland by plane, and at the airport, when Jeanine sent her luggage through security, the TSA agent made her unpack the vase so she could check it for explosives. “Tell me about this,” the agent said, understandably and kindly. “What’s in here?”
“These are some of my brother’s ashes,” she said. “We’re taking them to our daughter. My sister-in-law made all of us a vase like this.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. And this vase is beautiful. Tell your sister-in-law this is a wonderful idea.”
What Walton said, that there are pieces of Marshall everywhere, I am finding to be true. I see him and sense him in others – and not just in family members or others who knew him. Last week, in a fresh gush of sadness and shaking, I felt him swirling around inside me, in a wild, fast, figure-eight infinity loop, and a piece of him popped out of me and landed in the friend sitting across from me. If that sounds a little wacky to you, well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But it is increasingly my sense that the Mystery is greater than we can imagine and that all reality – everything — is connected. Things seen and unseen. The world, the underworld, the overworld. You, me, Marshall, the guy who wanna be a rock star, the trees, the water, the dogs, even the squawking freaking seagulls: a congregation of one, continually rearranging itself.
Last night I dreamed I was with a group of people gathered beside a river. We were singing and waiting for Marshall to join us. I could feel him approaching, from somewhere behind us, but I awoke before he got there.
And then, a few minutes ago, in front of this coffee shop, a family wandered up from behind Jeanine. A mom, a dad, and two little girls. And the younger girl, two or three years old, in a lime green shirt with multi-colored hearts and a silver unicorn, stopped and draped herself, arms and face, across Jeanine’s lap. She snuggled in and stayed there for half a minute, and her parents, thank God, just let her. Then she lifted her head and smiled.
Pieces all around and everywhere. Broken, shimmering, and finding each other.