Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the summer solstice is over and days get shorter as I speak.
My husband, Paul, loved to share that bit of Norwegian gloom. For even as we glory in the flower, he would remind me, the darkness gathers. Is it any wonder the Scandinavian folk get teased about their stoic, yet clearly long-suffering demeanor? I think not!
Light matters. Too much or too little makes all the difference, especially in these Northern climes. A friend of mine recently joked - bitterly, I might add - that there are so many folks of Scandinavian heritage in this county that we really ought to put Prozac in the water.
Today- in fact, most days of late - I find myself on the pebble beach just off the road leading to my farm. I look for certain stones. Black smooth ones. The blacker the better. About the size of a quarter. Just to rub between my fingers. No deeper reason other than I like the feel of them. And I like to see them on my dining room table, surrounding a pitcher of yellow wild mustard and blue forget-me-nots.
Also, I seek out oddly colored or stained stones. Any size at all. If my eyes light on one - maybe it looks like the planet Jupiter, or has a bit of quartz stuck in it - I seize it. Or perhaps I’ll find ones that look like the head or the body of a duck. These I admit to collecting.
It’s an odd obsession. One of the first women I met after moving here from the city got me started. She had a procession of rock ducks on the railing of her little cottage in town. She said she loved finding just the perfect head to a triangular duck-shaped body. Sometimes the ducks were all one color and variety of stone. Often, I think because she was an artist, the colors were mixed. I liked her so much I copied her creations.
Now, I too have flocks of the flightless creatures in my life. Some lurk among the fireplace tools on the hearth. Others cluster around the feet of a twig trellis on the deck. The bigger ones serve as Christmas stocking holders on my mantle. Each is chosen simply because light drew my eye to them. Light made their shapes visible. Showed me what each might be, if only I would stoop and pick them up.
Light is critical when searching out the perfect pebble or rock duck. I like late afternoon light, when the sun is low in the west. That way, as I walk eastward, black stones can’t hide. Turn west into the sun and they somehow fade and merge into the clutter. Even duck heads and bodies show up most vividly at that time of day.
Of course, on a cloudy day, or midmorning, I go to the beach simply to be there, which is really not all that simple. After 23 years of visiting that beach, the undertow of memory sweeps me back, back, back.
Back to that day in August of 1990 when Paul and I first set foot on that beach. Back to the next fourteen summers when our twin Labs, Ollie and Jubilee did their double-dog retrieve, swimming side by side with one piece of driftwood between them, paddling madly in an effort to make the other one let go of the prize. And back to when Gretchen, my only child, and her one-day husband, Les, had their farewell picnic and campfire the night before leaving for Los Angeles. Such seductive tugs at my mind and heart. So easy to drift away from today. If I let it.
Last weekend was Paul’s memorial service; over a dozen years living with the diagnosis of dementia over at last. Most of those years were just fine. Only a few were something else. Something as so absorbing, so precious as they were dreadful, that all else simply disappeared. Like the light of summer stolen even as we swim and fish and plant tomatoes caring not weather they ripen or not.
And so,during these last years my collection of rock ducks and smooth black pebbles grew not at all. It’s not that stopping at the beach was such a big deal; it wasn’t. I simply didn’t do it, not because I forgot it - I resisted it.
C.S. Lewis once said that to him, the only sin in this world is the refusal to feel joy. I believe that. Time after time as I approached the turnoff to my road, I consciously resisted the urge to pull over at the beach. Paul would have happily waited while I rock picked. The light was often perfect, but for whatever reason, I refused each and every opportunity given.
And yet, now, every day since Paul’s memorial service - a grand event he would have loved - every day when I approach the turnoff to my road, I do stop at the beach. Even if the light isn’t perfect, I stop.
Not to wallow in memory, or to plan the rest of my life - although I’ll admit to doing that at other times. I go there as I used to go there, just to be. To stoop over again and again. To pick up those warm, black perfectly smooth pebbles. To rub each between my fingers, for the sheer pleasure of it. And even to let my eye light on the perfect duck head and body. And sometimes I remember my Norwegian sweetheart’s doleful prediction; the light is disappearing every second from now until December 21. And I know that come the first big snow, the pebbles will vanish from sight. Safe from my greedy fingers.
But for now, I make that stop - every single chance I get.