“There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.”
~from How to Write a Poem by Wendell Berry
I’ve been feeling discouraged lately. I have some foot problems and a knee problem that have been keeping me from going for walks and doing yoga, and I need that exercise as much for emotional health as for physical. I also need it for my work. I do two marathon days of 10 hours each with three kids, and I need to be strong to make it through.
I also had an argument with a friend the other day, where we were crossing wires and each hurting the other. We talked about it and we’re fine now, but it left me feeling familiarly frustrated with how easy it is to say something stupid or hurtful — how in fact it seems like the harder I try the more blunders and absurdities I end up adding to the list of things that haunt me at night when I can’t sleep. And then I drive in Boston and people are so mean to each other sometimes, and so angry.
I don’t get outside much in my current jobs. The little kids go from activity to nap to activity, and the big ones have to go straight home from school to do their homework. The boy I watch on Fridays is just a (very cute) homebody, and if we get out it’s usually just for a walk around the block. So I was surprised and excited when he agreed to a walk around Jamaica Pond this afternoon.
I wish my phone took better pictures, but believe me, it was lovely at Jamaica Pond today. Still, I was feeling low and just kind of dull, and the autumn colors weren’t stirring as much joy in me this year as they usually do. Also, the first thing we saw when we stepped out of the car was writing scrawled on the curb — a variation of the “call Sally for a good time” except with explicit details about what the good time would entail, and what I assume was the poor girl’s actual phone number. And I thought — people suck. I suck. Why can’t we all get it together?
Still, I was at a gorgeous pond with an adorable four year old, so I settled myself into my job description as a writer (via Frederick Buechner): “Pay attention.”
The water level at the pond was much lower than it had been the last time I was there. J and I walked on a little beachy area below the landscaped stones that usually mark the edge of the pond. We threw stones into the water, and then sticks. We examined fallen branches and played walking games that J invented. I told him there was a really cool tree I wanted to show him, and he put the hood up on his sweatshirt and put his little hands in his pockets as we walked. We acted on suggestions from both parties: “Let’s climb that tree!” “Let’s go up those steps and see what’s on top.” “I’ll take one step then you take one step then I take two then you take two.” “Let’s go see where the old mansion used to be.”
My feet hurt a little bit, but the red and orange maples and the slope of the hills were beginning to get through my malaise. We traced the outline of the old mansion up on Pinebank Promontory and read the little plaques with its history and the history of the pond. Then we looped back down towards where the car was parked. We still had 20 minutes till we had to leave to pick up his big sister, so I tried to think of something to do.
“Do you want to throw rocks into the water again?”
We went back down on the drought-created beach, and started walking but suddenly there was a large flapping and a great blue heron moved away from us a few feet, startled by our proximity. We quickly went back up onto the path and sat down to watch it. I’ve lived in this area for nine years, and this is the first year I’ve ever seen a blue heron at the Pond. It seemed a little precarious. I’m used to seeing them in more secluded places. Jamaica Pond gets hundreds of visitors a day, lots with dogs. J and I watched as it resumed its slow stalk for fish, its long, S-shaped neck moving in concert with its feet. I explained that it was walking slowly like that so the fish wouldn’t notice it, and that when it saw one it would jab its long beak underwater and snap it up. Funnily enough, the heron’s walk looked a lot like one of the walking games we’d just been playing. J told me a joke:
“Why did the pelican get in trouble at the restaurant? Because he couldn’t pay his big bill!”
Suddenly the heron’s head jerked forward, there was a splash, and it came back up with a perfect little rainbow trout in its beak. It was exciting and dramatic and beautiful, and in that moment joy broke through to me again, celebrating the heron’s catch with a little boy on the path by Jamaica Pond. We watched for a while longer, chatting with others who had stopped to watch, and I exulted in their happiness, too. The heron caught one more fish while we were there, and missed one. People took pictures and smiled at each other, and laughed at J’s cute and wise comments.
It was a sacred place we’d stumbled onto, just yards away from the desecrated curb where we’d started. But there are no unsacred places, Berry said, and it’s true. It’s just that I needed the heron, and the maple trees, and J to help me remember.