to the very boundary
of her leap-ability
caught that red ball.
to the very boundary
of her leap-ability
caught that red ball.
A week after my first visit to the National Aquarium, I sat waiting on a bench across from the staff entrance. I had a 10:00 invitation issued by Ken Howell, curator of the Tropical Rainforest, to “see behind the scenes.” I sat in the shadow of this imposing glass building and felt the weight of the World War II submarine Torsk, with its frightening toothy grimace, and The Chesapeake, an historic bay ship, behind me. The sign, “Amazing Things Happen” flapped above on a banner and another, on a fixed sign, signaled “Immersion Tours.” How could a day begin more propitiously?
Gifts: I figure I must open to them if I am to have a rich life and attend to them if I am to have a deliberate life and pass them on if I am to live a gracious life. I don’t, always, but this gift landed graciously in my lap and now I’m compelled to try to deliver it forward, even though my knowledge of biology remains shallow at best. I enjoy imagining that that is the message of the Motmot, the bird I’ve pictured here, a name always repeating and unforgettable: Come back again and again. See and learn something new every time. And in the call of the Screaming Piha: live every juicy morsel of this life and at the absolute top of your lungs.
Those poison dart frogs had intrigued me, so Ken took me first to the tanks where the team is nurturing them. I’d been confused that the frogs I’d thought I’d seen earlier didn’t match the pictures I found online. It turns out that these guys come in many colors: greens and reds and yellows stripe their bodies like a schoolyard of children. They show curiosity when I come close, then go about their business on twigs and leaves. Their tanks are labeled so that the nurturers know who is who, dates of birth, types, names. I learned that a couple of the species take their tiny hatchlings way high to a bromeliad where its leaves hold rainwater that will be the tadpoles’ home until they grow their limbs. The mother feeds them her unfertilized eggs twice each day until they grow large enough to climb out on the leaf’s edge and begin their adult lives. In other, smaller, tanks live the groceries that nourish others: tiny crickets and fruit flies and insect larvae serve as food for the dart-frog family. I watched a woman sorting and managing in whatever way that serves the breeding and keeping of these food sources. A volunteer, she comes twice each day to serve the critters in this area. Devotion, for frog and human, it seems, requires twice a day attention and plenty of work.
I was struck again and again by the labels on all the pens and tanks back in the workings of the aquarium. For each one, a name, a history. Birds, frogs, fish. A female piha peered down from a limb in a big wire cage. “She’s been annoying her husband,” Ken said. “She’s been attacking him, in fact. We thought we’d give him a few days of rest from her.” He seemed to be gossiping about his neighbor.
We talked about the way we think about the animal kingdom, as individuals or as groups. Should we name the calf? Should we attach ourselves to the apparent affection of the ray? Many biologists believe firmly that we should not think of animals as we think of humans. They are their own kind. Yet, we see connections and similarities everywhere we come in contact with animals, no matter how exotic, slithery, ferocious, or adorable. We hunger. We need mates. We fear. We desire comfort and shelter. We live only a little while, with jobs to do while we live. And now and then, we connect with a species not our own. Now and then a line is breached and we touch. Not unlike, on another plane, we connect with grace people we’ve always thought were exotic, slithery, ferocious, or simply adorable. We find that they are more.
When Ken sent out a notice a while back that Rapunzel, the two-toed sloth who had been at the aquarium for some thirty years, had died, notes of grief arrived from staff members by the numbers; grown adults cried.
We stepped through heavy doors and across shallow puddles and around cylindrical tanks to observe the clown fish and the spikey cardinal fish, an endangered group, and the yellow tang and all their cousins. If I learn a name or two each time I visit, it will be progress. Names connect us. We notice what we can call by name.
We went another way and peeked in on the puffins, up close and personal, from our place behind the scenes.
At the South Pacific coral reef, the calciferous matter that binds a reef spread even to the pipes and floors behind the tank. Nature and its critters will have their way—if we connect, care, and help them. If we realize that if they are endangered, we are endangered–each individual of us.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore unfolded its treasures gradually as we followed its graceful architecture from level to level, up escalators and around curves, lights dancing like sun through water, seeking directions to jellies and then sharks, but often floating astray and finding what we hadn’t known to seek. The structure is, indeed, designed to take us to an unaccustomed, and by most, unexplored part of our planet, the world under water and the world that reaches far above us into a tropical canopy of trees. Both worlds hold secrets only the expertly trained are deciphering, foreign to most of us. And yet: all akin.
I could speak on and, at last, annoyingly on, about the endearing, lovely eyes of the sea bass against the glass, searching, it seemed for open seas; and oh, those of a ray, billowing as it swam, then coming back, again and again, to gaze at me, its little mouth like mine, like a baby’s, its eyes making such direct contact with mine I felt undeniably connected, some emotion quivering between us. Anthropomorphizing, I’m told, is an error, and it wasn’t that. It was recognition of common beginnings and common needs and maybe just common being. Maybe just having taken time to look, maybe that’s all, because only by looking at individuals do we see them. “Sea-life” or “fish” or “people” are not terms that endear and engender respect. One fish, one person, one crocodile on a rock, looking out from his worry or curiosity at me is an individual, like me.
Such an individual, a volunteer guide, materialized at the top floor of the canopy of the tropical rain forest. Think how many people we might know as individuals, and indeed, guides, if we only stopped to talk; and we do that as tourists taking advantage of another’s passion. With a casual acquaintance, even one I admire and like greatly, I often fail to discover what one thing makes her or his heart beat faster. With this man, a badge identifying him as Ken, it was not the case. He began slowly, wondering if he might be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the noisy bird that had claimed our attention. I listened to him at first as background music, then, as he searched the trees, I began to search, too, although spotting birds has never been a skill of mine. “We’ll see him in a minute: it’s the Screaming Piha. It takes a bit of patience,” he said. And I thought, patience, and reminded myself to slow down, rest, and remember that I had nowhere I had to be but here and present. Patience doesn’t come easily to me. A museum, which an aquarium is, is not meant to be a set of tasks. It is a place to be.
While waiting for the elusive Screaming Piha to appear, now that we had turned to this quiet guide, we enjoyed seeing a bright red-capped cardinal; the surprise of a Paradise Tanager, vivid blue, whose primary colors unfolded like a hand of cards when he flew above us; a scarlet ibis in flight, my very first sighting of this startling bird; a Motmot, its name alone a cheerily descriptive poem; the Linne’s 2-toed sloth high up and immobile; the lovely Sunbittern, who our helper said would soon come to the little flowing stream among the roots and vines downward from us, and did, showing off, drinking and wading and twisting its graceful neck.
“Look,” there’s the screamer we were looking for, the Piha.” By now, we knew that Ken’s wife and he had been volunteers at the aquarium for fifteen years, that they gardened at their home in a suburb of the city, that their neighbors attracted birds to multiple feeders but that this couple dared not feed the birds because of their sly cat, and that they rotated to various parts of the aquarium for every shift so that they remained fresh and interested. I couldn’t imagine this man not finding interest in one spot no matter how long he stayed there.
“I’ll show you something wonderful,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll find them. I never knew they were here until I was shown just a few weeks ago. They’d been here all the time.” Ken took us down to the next rocky level of the rain forest. I sensed his excitement as he looked, adjusted his eyes, and found his strawberry poison-dart frogs. Then we acclimated our eyes, looked where he pointed, and saw these tiny red denizens on the rocks and thin branches. Then, in the dim light, they merged with the moist leaves and twists of twigs and disappeared again into their hidden lives.
These are the things that make Ken’s heart beat faster: not just the equations for discovering the unknown, but also those for sharing the space of discovery—not the aquarium space, but the personal space. What appears to give him greatest pleasure is the making, in a willing participant, a tiny spot of curiosity and the road of patience that rewards it.
Soon, he let us go as quietly and easily as he’d engaged us as he turned to a boy with his head upturned looking at or for something he hadn’t yet found, and a conversation began, and we wound our way down toward the sea creatures and reefs again and the door that led back out to the world of sidewalks and cafes and a good coffee. An osprey circled in the harbor and the gulls fussed and screamed and we noticed.
Fell’s Point is sunny and warm this morning. Water taxis are running, people are jogging, shop and pub and restaurant doors stand open, and the ducks….Oh dear: so much flapping and quacking and fighting: these goings-on are hardly fit for print. So many drakes, so few susies. But the species goes on.
And this city? How does it go on? A dozen blocks away, that same sun glints off an assault weapon, a helmet, and protective gear.
Yes, here on the harbor we can pay attention to the beautiful day and to the ducks, but I cannot be committed to posting observations about our year in Baltimore and fail to address the turmoil that characterizes this city at present. In our relatively safe neighborhood, the flapping and quacking of human tongues, including mine, as we absorb the constant news, turns my attention to the loaded weight of words. “Don’t take anything for granted,” my grandmother told me. That is especially true, and especially in tumultuous situations, of the way we use language.
Language, the way a word twists around between speaker and receiver, is the mover and the beginning of solutions in the Baltimore troubles. The inciting incident was the evident abuse by policemen that caused Freddy Gray’s death. But one incident unveils multiple issues of the city’s attention to recruitment and training of policemen, of attention to depressed, overlooked neighborhoods; to jobs; to education; to kindness. And language is the tool of commitment, the tool of union, the inciting force for change. Yet it can, when different groups understand words differently, form a blockade to progress.
Language can soothe or hurt, and often, because of our various histories and experiences, we ascribe different meanings and connotations to words. “Thugs” is a word I am ashamed of having used to describe looters and car burners and window smashers. I think of a “thug” as a rough person, likely to misbehave, especially with rough treatment of others and by committing petty crimes; as one looking to cause trouble or break the law. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word as “a violent person.” Its history, from the Sanskrit is “swindler, thief” from “he who covers or conceals.”
I think these definitions, and my own understanding, speak to personal characteristics and are different from “acting” or “reacting” like a thug. No matter what history the people who destroy stores and steal merchandise and burn automobiles come from, they are reacting to a bad situation in a criminal way. I’ve been reminded that destruction of property has always been a part of reform as a last resort. It certainly forces attention and achieves the desired result of gaining a much wider audience for much wider issues. Are the perpetrators “thugs”? Maybe not, but the looters acted like thugs and I have my doubts about their political motives when they stole millions of dollars of inventory from a shopping mall and a drug store which had been serving their needs. So, shall I stand by my characterization? A discussion on NPR has made me understand that the answer is “No.” In the culture of Freddy Gray’s neighbors, the word is highly offensive.
Even if I view such behavior as exploitation of an event rather than a political statement, I know that in order for diverse people with diverse agendas to come together for the betterment of conditions, I must, and all must, measure the effects of words. Above all, I must say again and again words like “human being,” “mother,” “father,” “child,” “compassion,” and “love.” Language is the symphony that plays the complex motifs and themes of our lives, and I vow to listen first and listen better and then seek to speak a note that can be heard.
The Oyster House is one of the best restaurants on Thames Street in Fells Point. It’s more pub in appearance than restaurant, but its reputation for quality seafood makes it iconic among all the places to eat in this waterfront neighborhood. We pull up to the bar for lunch with a visiting friend. Behind us are high-top tables scrunched along the wall in the narrow room. In the back a square room opens up to make space for a number of white-cloth tables and chairs, but there is no room in the inn today except at the bar with its elbow-to-elbow seating. At noon the place is as loud and boisterous as on a Friday night: noisy, unruly, a scene in motion, people leaning across small tables and talking loud enough to be heard over the roar of dozens of other conversations and the clatters of service.
Our bartender, a seasoned, burly man who’s seen years on the wharfs or the sea, serves us with a kind of delicacy, almost like a priest making our communion for all appearances dear and individual. “Here, darlin’, watch out, the plate is very hot. No, too hot, don’t touch. Let me place it for you.” He uses his bare hands. “You’ve ordered just the right dessert, sweetheart, you’ll love it (such a tender presentation of berries and crumpets with cream across the beer-laden bar, before he turns to the row of taps, fills a glass with Resurrection, a local amber ale, and slides it to the young guy three stools down).
This is seaport grace, a symphony of multiple compositions: our bartender in motion; the old building, like the others up and down the streets, sighing and bending with its various weights; its exquisitely fresh seafood and strong drink and comfort served the way it has been for two centuries. Tonight the Oyster House will be full, no reservations available, plates rich with Blue Points, Wellfleet, Chesapeake Bay and Chincoteague will be served across the bar and carried on high to waiting diners, and we hope the crowds of twenty-somethings will moderate their drinking before these beautiful creatures arrive at their tables, so that they will taste the slick and sleek of them and that subtle, delicate, luscious character of them. Sip of martini, with Hendricks, slip of oyster. The heart and character of Fells Point begins like this.
Note: Fells Point has more bars per square mile than anywhere else in the United States. And there are fewer than there were 100 years ago. It’s a right merry place.
It’s residential too, row houses and high rises (mostly built out of old seaport warehouses) so parking is an exercise in patience for anyone who drives in to dine.
We have cobblestone streets and old trolley rails, tough on the tires. But it’s worth the trouble, and maybe an Uber ride.
Gray wraps the morning harbor
and when I raise the blind, I think:
a grim, gray day, the way the clouds
hang straight-mouthed, wordless.
But when I look again, determined,
I see across the flat water buildings
leaning their golds and reds into the bay,
and above these a gull sailing, lifting
first one side, then another, to catch the wind.
Here is the word of white, the word of grace,
the word of a single life out looking for food,
and I remember to call the day good,
to call the gray man with his gray bag
on a gray street good,
the way I should.
Yesterday the right angle triangle of mast and boom appeared in the square of my window, and I was forced to look out at the day differently, listen to the clank and clang of the harbor with a new ear, believe in a sky defined by the ninety-forty-fifty authority: a fitting rule for that day and onward into this chapter.
Life is full of geometry and we find our days delineated by scores of polygons, each with its own formulas: family, work, friends, passions, education, the enrichment of arts, exercise, nest care, body and vanity maintenance, nutrition, and all those books stacked on a table. The rest of the proverbial iceberg, a polygon of polygons, waits out of sight, teeming with the angled lives of id, ego, and super-ego, that great storehouse of the unconscious and nearly conscious and too conscious. To give it a home, to keep it controlled, we rely on lines, rules, and formulas, and for me, in this age of life, it works to attend to them one theorem at a time, to calculate how much area in my life I will assign to each. It is a daily task. Today: ninety degrees to work, ninety to love and all its duties.
Attention to work I feel compelled to do is like rigging and unfurling a sail. Difficult to begin, each day, but thrilling once begun. I am full of gratitude to the Universe and all that geometric machinery its Mind has put in motion, sustaining me and pushing me forward with a good wind; the family circle and my charted square of friends: the waters and the flags flying on the yardarm. New book coming, new book coming, the square of window and the new triangle moored at my back.
The Path Home –for John on February 14th
In this labyrinth
of halls and streets and years
and voices circling back
I find at its whispered center
this home of us.
Here we rise together
in the morning’s frost,
hold close in the wrap of night,
go out the puzzling track alone,
come back the remembered way.
This is the enormity
of our having chosen
the lifelong twists
and turns of us.
Here on the solid ground
of day on day, the world around us,
having found what was sought
it shimmers with the breath of light
wherever we may be,
sure as any gated yard,
any lamp shining in a window,
any kindled fire.
March 3 – Ice, Gulls, Spaces
Ice that has blanketed the Baltimore harbor for weeks has turned transparent near the edge, yet far out where the white is still thick, a gull stands and sometimes moves in small, stiff steps. When all the gulls gather, they form a tight circle away from the piers, moving barely, warming in their group, from here silent as a winter painting, gray-white on white, a glance of black.
We are not unique this winter with our snow and ice and with some winter-weariness; but as city dwellers who must walk dogs and pay meters to park and walk stark, now snow-banked blocks to, say, buy printer paper or mail a package, I find it rawer and more tiresome than setting out from my suburban home in Nashville, where less traffic and less incidence of snow and less competitive parking make outings less fatiguing. In that house, a number of rooms and views offer variation in indoor spaces. Also, there, the dogs wander a fenced yard for all their entertainment and occupations, and there, my friends give me respite from the four walls and supply me with news and advice and warm company and stimulus of thought.
There, however, in the familiarity and comfort of my true home, I can’t see the water that harbors vessels of every ilk and style, from the little pump-out boat to the cargo ships, from the harbor sailboats to seagoing yachts. I can’t hear the wind chimes of riggings or the cry of gulls as they group on the ice at sundown. I enjoy the noise of our Baltimore neighborhood, its movement on the streets, people scurrying to the bus or the yoga spa on the corner of Wolfe and Aliceanna, to the shops, past bars spilling their patrons and music onto the sidewalks, and the colorful eateries with painted windows defining their ethnicity and offerings.
Like all dog-walkers, I recognize people by where and when I meet them along the way and the company they keep. A man who might be a Ravens player walks his border collie early morning and late night all the way from Harbor East through Fells Point and on to Canton, these distinct neighborhoods that blink their edges along the shore. Sometimes he and I chat about the ice underfoot. Sometimes he doesn’t remove his ear plugs and passes without seeing me. Stella, the English lab puppy; Pickles, the great Dane baby who increases in height perceptibly every day—he trots by with his male person invariably clad in pink pajama pants; Toby the English spaniel with his lovely English woman; Socks, the dachshund mix who dislikes our Irish setter, Carly; Buster, the raggedy golden lab too tall and scruffy to be purebred, such a sweet dog, with his kind young Hopkins medical resident. And so on. Any dog park, any city in the world, offers this sort of acquaintances. I like the urban life, not unlike the electric life of Paris, though not so grand a city. I was about to add Bergamo, another place I’ve planted light roots, but Bergamo is self-consciously elegant and orderly. Baltimore doesn’t pose, although its architecture and art and parks and wharfs breathe a rich and prideful history. A quotidian ordinariness of life, a mix of ugly and whimsical and stunning and ragged and stately make it above all approachable, livable, and always inviting.
In contrast, in our three rooms, I relish a solitude with few interruptions. It becomes, by day, my desk: my pacing and working and reading space—a stage for thinking and making. Oh, it’s all a balancing act as sure as walking on that icy, cobbled street. I miss the interruptions that connect me to friends and family I love and want to bide with; and yet I need the monastic’s cell, what this apartment is by day.
And then, there comes the hour of the gathering-in: He and I. We step our tight cautious steps along the walkway, our movements, if the sleepy gulls should notice in the dimming evening, lean far away from them, black on black, walking those dogs, close to one another for warmth against the white glaze.
FELL STREET FOOTNOTES #4
February 8, 2015
We pay our bill at the register at Jimmy’s on Broadway, grab the Baltimore City Paper, and pull on our jackets and scarves as we squeeze past the crowd at the door. Sunday morning: Jimmy’s before nine. After that you have to wait for a table. We take the two-top behind the cement post because it’s toward the back and protected from the cold blasts from the door, and besides, that’s where the waitress expects us to be. Today, it isn’t too cold. Discussing our goals for the day, we set off toward home.
Before we reach the corner of Broadway and Thames, up and down the road flash the urgent lights of multiple police cars, two ambulances, an the AirFlex van—I really wonder what that is—and three fire engines. People clasp their cups of steaming coffee close to their chests and gather in small groups in the square and we edge across the street at City Pier. Sirens blast. The pier is for police only. A rescue boat patrols among the Saturday night flotsam while divers bob and search.
“Anybody know what’s up?” The sirens keep us jittery. “Eh, prob’ly just another body in the water.” Still, no one is quite as blasé as he sounds. We look over the side of the piers and wonder where footholds might help a person up, but we can’t find any—just some rubber bumpers one might hang onto in the freezing water, the under-pier mallards looking on, curious and wordless. We think of last night’s drinkers, one of whom might have stumbled in. We think of despair—so many homeless; so many loves gone bad–and we think of families, but we see no one who looks personally involved besides considering the hazards of his own living.
Finally, we move on to subjects unrelated to the vehicles revving around us, the noise of the sirens and the blinking lights, and we discover that the man who’s now wandered down the vacated pier with us is retired, has lived in the area all his life, has a daughter who gave him his NCIS hat (“She’s always bringing me some little gift.) and that the brick she donated to the harbor promenade has his middle name spelled wrong, the Anglo one squeezed between Mario and Silvestri, and that, at 83, he just can’t retire. He drives cars for the auto auction house, the one that sells barely used government vehicles on Tuesdays.
The three of us spot something in the water. It floats away from us on fast-pushing waves. “It looks like an arm, maybe,” I say. “Just a log, I think,” says John. I zoom to it with my cell phone camera, but the glare on the surface makes it impossible to see what it is. It would be so much more striking were it a dead body, but I don’t say this, banish the evil wisp of wind that suggested it. “People see something, call it in. Usually it’s a false alarm.”
“But these rescue units could have put out a three-alarm apartment fire. Shouldn’t they be on call in some other part of the city? And all these police could have arrested a whole mafia ring. Why so many?” Mario shrugs. Others turn back toward wherever they were headed. I think it’s a case of human solidarity—all those big “guns” turning out for the support of a single life. Hospital staff are waiting up at Maryland General, fresh sheets stretched across a wheeled bed. Warmth would be offered. Yet chances that someone would be found alive are nearly zero.
Tonight, news has reported the incident as a false alarm with good intent. Someone thought she saw a human being in the water, and she called 911. The firemen put their gin-rummy hands aside and pulled on their shiny protective clothes. Divers rolled out of bed and struggled into wet suits and strapped on tanks. Police officers left the streets for the harbor. And we came to help with our hope for drama and our support for life, two strange buddies in our make-up. Yet everyone stands ready to be a hero, at least. Everyone wants to save a life–at least one.