Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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You know those brilliant blue days in January after a snowstorm. The world is white and sparkling and you feel blessed just to be in the cold. We decide to go for a walk in a gully so steep it has remained untouched by development. There are five of us: my friend, her new lover, her two dogs, and me.
My two human companions are visibly in the flush of first love. Shy but irrepressible smiles keep appearing at the corners of their mouths. The dogs are exuberant. One is a husky. The white one, Jasmine, is half husky, one-quarter malamute, and one-quarter wolf. The last quarter is apparent in her paws, her face, and her howl.
I have no particular affinity for dogs, but Jasmine makes me want her company. My friend and I laugh over Jasmine’s silly antics, like when we found her at our Adirondack campsite frothing at the mouth, snapping with strange throaty noises at the bubbles foaming out of her. Some camper must have left a mixture of leftovers and soapsuds somewhere in the woods. Most of the time, however, she is so dignified that I must hold myself back from bowing to her. I’ve seen the look on her face when my friend is crying. Jasmine lays her paw gently and firmly on my friend’s forearm and nudges her chin as if to say, “Here I am. What’s wrong?” Jasmine looks you in the eye. She walks as if she thinks she’s the Dalai Lama.
This day is for me. The new snow sits piled on every branch and twig, outlining their darkness with white. It’s the kind that sticks to tree trunks and makes you want to eat them. It lies in large cotton balls on the shrubby undergrowth. Every now and then, a soft breeze blows some of the powdery snow into a shaft of sunlight, and the air sparkles with tiny, brilliant notes of light against the blue, dark green, and white world. When I was a child, I dreamed of wandering through magical landscapes such as this, landscapes that would make me feel exactly as I do now.
We walk along the bottom of the gully for some time before I realize that we are on the frozen creek. The gorge rises thirty feet above our heads, with little waterfalls of ice on its sides. There are fresh tracks on the fresh snow, and the dogs are everywhere picking up scents, chasing who knows what, behind us, ahead of us.
There is a sound. My friend turns and looks up. Her smile drops and she screams, “Jasmine!” I turn to see the dog, not at the cliff’s edge looking down like her companion, but in mid-air. I see her frozen forever a third of the way down, a lovely white dog cascading down like the lovely ice on the cliff side. She hits the frozen creek, and lies in her bed of snow, not moving.
For a moment I am still, until I notice that everyone else is running. The husky has disappeared from the cliff side to find her way down. My friend is rushing toward Jasmine. Her scream reverberates in my mind, with a quality of despair that surprises me, as if she knows something I don’t. This puts my feet into action, but each step is a struggle, as my boots sink into the deep snow.
Jasmine is lying on her side, panting. When we arrive, she simply looks at us. We don’t say a word to each other or to her. All three of us kneel, reach out our hands, and put them on her. My fingers sink into the thick fleece on her shoulder. She has that straightforward look in her eye, immersed in this moment of living as in any other. As always, she is direct, uncomplicated, and present. When her eye looks into mine, I see that she, too, knows what my friend knows. There’s a disturbing contrast between the heaving of her tongue and her utter stillness, her tranquil eye. It occurs to me that perhaps I should be seeing blood coming out of her mouth, but there is no blood anywhere. Her fur and the snow are still pure white.
I fantasize a healing, Jasmine bounding up and trotting off. We’re here, my mind tells her, we’re here with you, Jasmine. Her eye has its usual calm, bright, alert look. Then the light lets go of it. Her panting stops, and we all have our hands on something that is not Jasmine.
This seems impossible. I even look in the air to see if I can tell where she went.
Three years later, I’m in a canoe on an Adirondack lake. This morning before sunup, I awoke to the sound of a loon, a cry with a sixty-million-year-old voice that strikes like a stone shattering a window.
Since then, I’ve been watching the loon on the lake. Even at a distance, the loon reveals himself by the way he sits low on the water, and by the angle of his head and pointed beak. His black-and-white mosaic glides effortlessly through reflections of cedar, birch, and white pine. He dives for fish occasionally, but mostly he just sits under the bright afternoon sun. I’ve been sitting like this, watching, for hours. Imitating a loon, I enter his time, which does not pass but immerses, engulfing past and future. The sun rises and sets. I grow from girl to woman; silver comes into my hair in this single, huge moment of stillness.
The way the loon looks at the sparkling water, the green shore, the blue sky, makes the dividing lines among them disappear. He absorbs molecules of the light-filled air on his back and his upturned face, like a song he hears through his feathers. I’m convinced he sits calm and alert, just like this, when he winters on a storm-tossed ocean drenched in cold rain.
Somewhere before, I’ve seen that eye just looking, that attitude of the head revealing a simple, straightforward immersion in the present. There’s something here I can’t get enough of, or haven’t looked at long enough to get. I paddle to shore, slip out of my clothes and into the water. As I swim slowly toward the loon, the cool lake strokes my skin. Even parts of me that are never touched by the world are touched now. I feel as if I’ve plunged straight into being. I dive and roll, as elated and replete as if this were my first moment on Earth.
As I hold my eye at loon level, looking through the loon eye, everything that defines my experience — words, feelings, feelings about feelings — slips into the water and floats away. Without these filters, the world is in such acute focus that it comes pouring into me. There is nothing to do, or think, or feel. I let the water hold me. I let something in me sink into a blue darkness, full to the brim with nothing. I sink, and find myself lying in a bed of snow on a frozen creek. My eye is open; the world is pouring out of it.
Standing on the shore, I bow to the loon. I turn 180 degrees and bow with dignity to the dog.