Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.
This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.
Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.
This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?
To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.
“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”
“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”
“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”
“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”
“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”
Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.
Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.
He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.
“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”
“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”
Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.
Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.
Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.
Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.
Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.
Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.
Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.
Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.
Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.
It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.
He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.
Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.
He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.
It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.
His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.
“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”
He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.
“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”
He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.
There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.
It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.
He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.
The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.
He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.
–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?
Finally, her answer came then.
–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”
The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.
They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.
He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.
They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.
“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”
“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.
“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”
“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”
“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”
Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”
Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.
Out of the belly of the earth arose exquisite contortions of rock and urgency of shadow, dampness that imbued spasms of light, the innards powerfully compacted and faintly acrid, and much was bright with echoes. But there were footholds to be found despite precarious twists and narrows.
It was a testament to primeval life, and we were foreigners who somehow knew to find our way unless we allowed defeat. We dug in our heels, squeezed through one cavern to find one more confoundment, a puzzle of clefts and tunnels, and we clawed our way as necessary to some distant denouement. The frightful possibility of newness, that exhilaration at the ends of somewhere else that told us: home again.
It had been there before–the wild abundance, the thrumming heart of the living, the aptitude for miracles. It could be discovered again, no matter the hunger and thirst, the dead and dying, misbegotten missions and twisted greed, the terrible paucity of compassion and the careful support without which the way can never be navigated well. One stumbles and falls, one needs hands to at least begin to stand.
Why was this all known to Symsha, the scout who scrambled ahead?
It was written in the cool brilliance of the vast pulsing of stars and the fiery core of deepest earth. In their own blood and bone. It was the code, the pass key, the gift that unlocked it all. From dis-ease to revelation, they could find their way if they’d only pay attention.
But if ever there was a need for a potent sign to hear, a saving word to hear, it was now. And Divine Love waited for all to still, empty of self interest. For the world to reconnect to its own wisdom and its people to wake and rebuild outward and upward once more. To understand: they were meant to exist even higher than the angels– but only if humbler than all else. That was one part, a necessary start to a victorious endeavor, a fight for true freedom.
And so on they crawled and groped and scraped from belly to mouth of the claustrophobic, mesmerizing caves.
There was more to this than they could imagine but Symsha knew it was well that they did not. Greatness was greatness only when unaware. And Symsha was only a guide.
Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.
It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.
I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)
It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )
It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.
When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.
But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.
I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.
I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.
Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.
Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.
That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.
But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.
We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.
It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.
Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.
And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.
As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.
No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.
I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.
I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.
From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.