Thoughts

Thoughts, not always deep, rarely profound

Robin Redbreast

We had another flock of robins come through again today. Many more females this time since they are on a southern migration, not northern. Robins are ground feeding birds, so it's surprising how fast and agile they are in the air.

robin1.jpg

Robins have long been the harbingers of spring, but for some reason, the robin is also associated with war and even with death. I wonder if its because its a migratory bird, leaving in the winter and returning in the spring. Leaving and winter reminds us of loss, while spring and returning remind us of hope.

As coincidence would have it Loren discussed Stanley Kunitz's poem "Robin Redbreast" this week:

It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.

Loren covered the poem on Veteran's Day a day when we honor our veterans from so many wars. When I was driving yesterday, the radio played a set of ads from different organizations and companies and people in celebration of Veteran's Day. The word Freedom was central to each and every one.

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

At poets.org, I found Sara Teasdale's poem "There will come soft rains" that references a robin. I liked it, but it, too, is somber:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The page noted that this was a war time poem. My first reaction was: which war?

robin3.jpg

But robins are also a harbinger of spring, and they cheer me so with their puffed up chests of bright scarlet; like an oldtime politician thrusting out his well-filled belly before shaking the hands of Father, while patting baby Suzy on the head.

Robins are also a contradiction: they're a territorial bird, independent and individual, but they migrate in flocks. It's comical to watch them when they fly as a group — they fly their own path within the flock's path, and it looks like this big disorganized cloud of fast moving but fiercely chaotic smoke. When they land on the holly berry trees, they start to squabble when others land nearby but then remember, "Oh yeah. That's right. Cooperate', and settle in to feed.

Today though they picked a holly tree that has a large, well entrenched grey squirrel nest in it. The birds drove that poor squirrel to distraction — just as he chased one off, another would land.

Everything is a pest for something else.

robins2.jpg

Reflections:

Creating:

The Ephemeral Crystal

There's something magical about seeing the first snow flake falling. At that moment, you and nature are joined in a special secret only shared by those who look out their windows at just the right moment. The first flakes are few, and dance lightly about in the breeze, like the tip of a tongue during foreplay. Moving here, no there, no here.

As the snow falls I watch the pattern of the wind, no longer limited by my crude perceptions that tells me the wind is blowing in a straight line from here to there. The snow traces the currents, a waltz of breezes.

During the day, through my window I watch a father take his child for her first walk in the snow. Hesitant footsteps made a little more unsure by suddently uneven footing that shifts about and causes her to fall. Cruel! But then there's that moment when tiny face is turned up into the snowfall for the first time; gently, cold touches sweep across cheeks and wisps of cotton at lashes and falls and melts in mouth opened to cry out in pure discovery. All is forgiven, and another child is found winter.

Better than watching the first flake, I love to go to bed with bare streets and wake up in the mornings knowing that snow has started falling. You can hear it by the absence of sound, and you can see it through your window as streetlight reflected. Pulling back the curtain, you look out on a world of white, lines softened between objects until the differences are erased. All you see is soft, crystalline mounds, sparkling in the light.

Snow brings with it a hint of Mother tucking us in against the cold, and a promise of waking.

Reflections:

Fraud, Fiction, and Flaws

I discovered the name of the green mystery mineral. It's Vivianite.

viv1.jpg

It's not a perfect sample, but at least it's not blackened as so many Vivianite samples are with exposure to light (she says as she looks at her sample, sitting in the sun). Obvious holes in the matrix show where better crystals have been pried loose, probably to be sold separately. Personally, I think imperfections in the piece adds to its character.

I have always collected based on beauty and character rather than value and perfection. Because of my undisciplined approach, my collection is interesting rather than profound. That's not to say that the collection isn't worth money — sometimes beauty and character do go hand in hand with monetary worth, as demonstrated with this virtually flawless rhodochrosite.

rhodochrosite.jpg

Still, there are a few of my samples I shouldn't include in the collection photos because they're obvious fakes, or novelty items and of no serious value. When you show your collection, you don't show these rocks. You certainly don't photograph them.

Mineral collectors will only show you their good pieces, the ones they're most proud of. However, if you look into their dark corners and hidden drawers, you'll find their bits of fraud, fiction, and flaws — samples they think about tossing some day, but they won't. The imperfect pieces, the mistakes, and the fakes add life to a collection. They add history. They make a collection interesting.

For instance, the photo below is of bismuth, which is normally a featureless blobby white/grey mineral. However, put it into a centrifuge, spin it at fast speeds and inject a little oxygen, and viola — you have a beautiful bit of color. No value to it, but I like my eccentric no value pieces. This particular one reminds me of an Escher drawing. You can also use it as a pencil — now, how handy is that?

bismuth.jpg

I have a few frauds, too. My favorite is a hand-sized rock with quartz and appetite crystals in it. I have no doubt about the nature and quality of crystals, but the sample itself is an obvious fraud. I knew it was a fraud when I bought it. I still bought it, and therein lies the value of the rock.

At an outdoor mineral show consisting of tents set up in the parking lot around a rather seedy motel in Tucson, Arizona, I came across one table filled with yellow-green appetite crystals from Mexico. Most were still attached to their rust-red matrix, making the pieces quite pretty overall.

I tried to effect a knowing attitude, but I swear, I must have had rube tatooed on my forehead. The Dealer, an older man who was very gallant to me and kind to my niece (not all that common among the tents if you're not buying in bulk), sized me up, came to some kind of internal decision, and brought a rock from underneath his table for me to look at — a hand sized piece with a couple of relatively nice appetite crystals in it.

"That's what you want", he said in heavily accented English. "That's good rock. Nice crystals. I give you good deal on it."

I picked up the rock and looked more closely at the two larger crystals. They were both wedged into the rock but even a cursory examination showed that the crystals were cut at the bottoms and then glued into the rock, with bits and pieces of broken crystal glued around them in an attempt to hid the obvious manipulation. (Crystals in matrix always sell better than those that are loose.)

I looked up at the dealer and he beamed at me, nodding his head, pointing at the rock and kept saying, "Good rock, nice crystals, eh?"

"It looks like the crystals have flat bottoms and aren't attached to the rock", I said.

"No, no. This happens sometimes. Pressure on rock force crystals loose, but they held in by rest of rock." He assured me, shaking his head a modest display of genuine sincerity. "No, this is good rock. Good crystals. I give you good deal." Pause.

"Fifty dollars."

I gaped at him. Literally gaped at him, mouth open in astonishment at the chutzpah of the dealer. I held the rock in my left hand, and pointed at the crystals with the index finger on my right hand and just looked at him.

He smiled back, beaming in pride of this treat he was bestowing on me.

"Fifty dollars?"

Beam.

"Are you kidding? This is a fake!"

His smile faltered. A hurt look entered his big brown eyes (before, bright black and alert, now suddenly taking on aspects of one's favorite dog just before it dies). His age set more heavily on his shoulders and he shrunk in slightly, as if in despair. His body said it all: His son has died; his daughter has run off with a biker. I even thought that, for a moment, I could see his upper lip trembling, and a hint of moisture appearing in the corner of his eye. I watched his change of expression — from certitude to dejection — with utter fascination, and more than a little consternation.

"Madam," he said quietly. "You wrong me. This is no fake. Please, I would not do such a thing"

Placing his hand over his heart, he lowered his head slightly and pulled away from the table, turning his shoulder away from me as if flinching from a blow. I looked back at him and I realized in that moment, I have met fraud before, but I have not met artifice. And artifice is a ceremony, as precise as the tea ceremonies in Japan — my response was equivalent to not taking off my shoes, spilling the tea, dropping the cup, and then farting when I go to pick up the pieces.

I didn't know what to do. Putting the rock down and walking away would have flawed the moment and marred the experience, for both me and my young niece who was with me that day. But I didn't know how to recover.

"I, uh, I'm sorry," I stammered. "Uhm…I didn't mean to..uh"

The dealer was not a cruel man; or perhaps he was used to dealing with gauche Americans who buy their goods marked with barcodes and stickers, with heavy assurances of quality. He turned towards me, his face now that of one's favorite wise old Uncle, the one mother invites to dinner but then hides the booze.

"Madam, I understand. There is so much evil in the world. You must be careful. But see now, I am an honest man. But I am not a selfish man. I will give you this rock, this pretty rock for … forty dollars. It is a steal at forty dollars."

Shrewd eyes on my face. Next line was mine. I had my opening. I could have put the rock down and say that I hadn't that much money and I still needed to buy lunch for my niece and thanked him and walked away and the moment woud have been salvaged, but it wouldn't have been right. Besides, the crystals were good if small, and there were some interesting bits to the piece, not counting the ingenious use of glue.

"I'll give you ten dollars for it."

"Madam! Ten dollars! You are joking! No, no. Ten dollars. No, no!" He exclaimed in dismay, but he also smiled at me in approval of my response — there was hope for me yet, me with my wits dulled by years of supermarket shopping and sell by dates.

"Thirty-five dollars. I will take thirty-five dollars."

I was about to counter with fifteen, feeling more confident in this bargaining game when the Dealer picked up another crystal on the table — a small one. A very small one. Barely more than pretty dust.

"And I'll throw in this lovely crystal for your niece. See? It is a fine crystal. Yes? Good offer?"

"That's very kind of you," I said, clenching my teeth at the exclamations of delight from my niece who loves getting something for free even more than she likes sparkly things that cost money.

Artifice.

myfavoritefake.jpg

Reflections:

Death of a Moth

Years ago I worked in a large modern building with dark grey glass doors and windows. One morning when I was out smoking, I noticed a bright spot on the wall next to the door — a white moth, with soft, furry body and silvery antennae. It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, delicate and fragile, highlighted by the darkness of the glass and granite building. It was held there against the wall by a grip frozen in death.

I was reminded of this moth when I read W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz with his references to moths; subtle symbols of the lead character's search for the truth of who he is, like the moth's obsessive desire for illumination, regardless of the cost. And in the book, memories are tipped out into words forming stories as fragile as the wings of a moth preserved in a jar:

None of the containers was more than two or three inches high, and when I opened them one by one and held them in the light of the lamp, each proved to contain the mortal remains of one of the moths which — as Austerlitz had told me — had met its end here in this house. I tipped one of them, a weightless ivory-colored creature with folded wings that might have been woven of some immaterial fabric, out of its Bakelite box onto the palm of my right hand. Its legs, which it had drawn up under its silver-scaled body as if just clearing some final obstacle, were so delicate taht I could scarely make them out, while the antannae curving high above the whole body also trembled on the edge of visibility.

In college I was introduced to another story featuring a moth, Virginia Woolf's essay, Death of a Moth. In it, Woolf writes about a moth flying about a window pane, its world constrained by the boundaries of the wood holding the glass. The moth flew, first from one side, to the other, and then back as the rest of life continued ignorant of its movements. At first indifferent, Woolf was eventually moved to pity of the moth:

The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth's part in life, and a day moth's at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic.

Eventually the moth settles on the window sill and Woolf forgets it until she notices it trying to move again, but this time its movements are slow and awkward. It attempts to fly but fails, and falls back down to the sill, landing on its back, tiny feet clawing at the air as it tries to right itself. The author reaches out to help when she realizes that it is dying and draws back, reluctant to interfere with this natural process. Somehow in the brightness of the day, the power of death was seeking this moth, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Still she watched the moth as it fought against the inevitable:

One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.

However, after the moth had righted itself, death descended and it stopped moving in the instant of its victory:

The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.

In Woolf's essay, the battle between life and death is somehow seen as both pathetic and noble. Pathetic because death will always win regardless the desire for life; but noble in how one faces death — on our back, defeated, or on our feet, and in dignity.

Another essay also called Death of a Moth by Annie Dillard is often compared to Woolf's essay, most likely because of the similar titles and subjects. Unlike Woolf though, Dillard's moth meets its end much more dramatically, caught within a candle's flame, it's body on fire, which Dillard details in unsentimental detail:

Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, like angels' wings, enlarging the circle of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine; at once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs.

Compared to Woolf's moth, with its quiet dignity and brave fight against death, Dillard's moth was caught in a torment of fire and died violently, one could almost say grotesquely. Death isn't veiled in the struggle, isn't seen through the same type of grey silken glasses worn by one of Sebald's characters to mute the landscape when he paints. Death is stripped bare, exposed in all of its hideous indifference.

Yet where Woolf's moth leads one to accept death, to embrace the nobility of death, Dillard's moth flares out at death, defiant, and unaccepting. Its death says to me, "I do not go willingly, I do not give up on life easily. You must rip it from me and I'll fight to hold it." In the end, rather than form a noble and dignified corpse, Dillard's moth becomes a second wick, causing the candle to burn that much brighter:

She burned for two hours without changing, without swaying or kneeling-only glowing within, like a boiling fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

I was more moved by Woolf's moth, but Dillard's moth is the one most vivid in my mind and in my memory.

Reflections:

Cruising

I rarely drive at night, but tonight, as the sun started to set, I wanted nothing more than to get out of the house and on to the road. The weather was summer warm today, being pushed by last winter's breath tonight. I hoped into Golden Girl, rolled down the windows, turned the radio to a good station and just started driving. No where in particular. Away from the city. Away from the people.

Traffic's always light early here — all the good people are at home, settled down at dinner table or in front of the television. Most likely they were catching up with the day's news as I started the drive. The ultimate reality show. Survivors: Showdown in Baghdad.

My hair whipped about and into my face. I've let it get a bit long and normally I'll keep it pulled back if I have the window down; otherwise I end up with a curly mess. Tonight, though, it felt good to have my hair flying about as I sped up, turning corners, feeling the leather of the steering wheel slip softly through my hands.

My elbow rested on the open window and my head rested on my hand, but I wasn't dreaming. I was aware of my surroundings, keeping a lookout for tiny eyes lit up by the lights. My little bubble on wheels, she drives a treat when you get her out of the city. Hugs the road as if she's found her long lost lover.

On the radio, Creed's One Last Breath starts playing:

Please come now I think I'm falling
I'm holding to all I think is safe
It seems I found the road to nowhere
And I'm trying to escape
I yelled back when I heard thunder
But I'm down to one last breath
And with it let me say
Let me say

Hold me now
I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking
That maybe six feet
Ain't so far down

I'm looking down now that it's over
Reflecting on all of my mistakes
I thought I found the road to somewhere
Somewhere in His grace
I cried out heaven save me
But I'm down to one last breath
And with it let me say
Let me say

Hold me now
I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking
That maybe six feet
Ain't so far down

Sad eyes follow me
But I still believe there's somthing left for me
So please come stay with me
'Cause I still believe there's something left for you and me
For you and me
For you and me

Hold me now
I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking.

car4.jpg

Reflections:

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Thoughts