My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.
--Ursula K. Le Guin
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and This Time

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July, 2009 - Grey Herons

Around dusk, I started out to find the grey heron that I saw last evening in the creek below Ayres Hall. But the storms earlier today had left the creek muddy and swollen, rushing too fast for the heron to find food. The rocks in the shallow creek bed that he had strolled slowly across yesterday were under water. Walking waterfowl are hypnotic--slowly lifting, extending, and setting down those long spindle legs, motion as fluid as the water they are moving through, seeming never to touch solid ground. It's the look humans strive for when suspended from ropes over a stage, like Mary Martin as Peter Pan or Emma Thompson in Angels in America. But humans cannot match the heron's elegant precision. When he lifted those great wings and floated a few feet closer, I stopped breathing. There was not a sound. How could I not want to witness that again?

I followed the creek under Neyland Drive on down to the river, thinking he might be there. The sky was gray, the moon almost mango yellow--was that because of the code orange ozone alert on the radio this morning? The denser the air pollution, the more brilliant the orange sunsets. Sure enough, there he (she?) was on the rocks at the water's edge. I passed within a few feet above him, and he didn't seem concerned, merely swiveled that long, elegant neck to watch me pass.

It was dark by the time I climbed the steep hill on Walnut. At the top I paused to smell the blooming magnolia. As I passed the post office, a woman hauling piecemeal about a half dozen bags--some luggage, some plastic--toward the bus stop asked me for a quarter. She looked like a nineteenth-century Russian peasant, even the scarf on her head resembled a babushka. Her clothes, layered on, were stained, and she smelled strongly of urine. I said, "Sorry, but I don't have my purse with me." I asked her if she knew about the homeless shelter on Broadway, and she said she had already been there. She seemed intelligent, like someone who, if cleaned up and dressed in decent clothes, could step back into middle-class society and fit. But how could that be? I wished her good night and a safe journey and looked back once to see her carry two bags a few feet and return for two more.

She was, I suppose, migrating like the ospreys and herons but had no nest to return to. I wondered if the bus driver would let her take all those bags on board, if he would hoist them for her. She stuck in my mind longer than the heron, reminded me how much I have and how much of it is unimportant, how quickly life passes and how much of it is wasted. For some reason, I remembered a May Swenson poem:

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
with cloud for shift
how will I hide?

And I was thinking of myself, not the homeless woman, and I envied her so much vaster knowledge of suffering, knowledge that came from more than books and movies and life's little traumas, knowledge that probably kept her from worrying about trivialities, or fearing death.