The Rusty Nail


It is Jim’s birthday.   The last birthday he spent with us fell one month, to the day, after the November afternoon when we learned my husband’s illness was incurable.

It has been said that by one’s 50th birthday, one has the face one deserves.  Jim, barely into his 50s when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had a classically handsome, serene face.  Gentle humor, occasionally with a devilish edge, lit his eyes.

This was the face he always will have, the way I believe I’ll always remember it, with uncanny precision.

He did not reach–not nearly–the old age that Simone de Beauvoir described as “life’s parody.” His story walking with us ended with the “[d]eath [that] does away with time,” that “transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension.”

(Nor did he live to see the face I would have at fifty–although he would have loved me even if it proved an artistic disappointment.)

Every day is an anniversary of something meaningful to our family, but there seems something extra fraught about the anniversary of a birth and of a death.

The day his beloved parent died, and from which his life unwound, the character who voices The Goldfinch noted “used to be a perfectly ordinary day but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.” The author revived the simile 749 miraculous pages later, musing about the multitudinous kinds of beauty which will become leitmotifs in different lives: “The pieces that occur and recur.  Maybe for someone else. . . it wouldn’t be an object.  It’d be a city, a color, a time of day.  The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.”

(In the novel, at least two lives become derailed by one painting of a small bird.  Is it a coincidence that its provenance is absolutely settled by two small nail holes visible only from the back of–and only by one who possesses and handles, out of its frame–the eponymous masterpiece?)

Another character understands that “beauty alters the grain of reality,” and the protagonist sees some acuity in “the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.”

What does any of this have to do with a birthday?

It began with a bird.  (And, to be fair, I’m taking some pretty good medication for my back; this post may make absolutely no sense when I re-read it.)

For Jim’s birthday post, out of all the photos in all the gin joints in the world, I picked one of a Galapagos dove.  My picture is blurry, but it captures one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Just three Decembers ago I was with Jim and our children when we saw it; he took his own stunning, clear photographs and I am smitten with those, too.

The dove moves across time, taking me back to that moment when every sense absorbed this creature’s beauty in its equatorial setting, when neither I nor even Jim–despite what he already had endured and what was soon to come–felt any pressing physical burden. The dove also somehow springs forward in time, as if it were in my line of vision right now, instead of today’s icy reality of a winter storm and wracking pain in my spine.

I have realized since taking this picture that, especially after Jim’s death, I began looking for birds everywhere.  Apart from our children, little seems as artful, as beautiful, as alive for the ages.  I sought and still seek out these fleeting, singing, sailing creatures.   Their beauty captivates me.

As The Goldfinch’s narrator discovered, “between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  He continues: “And–I would argue as well–all love.”

Our lives become caught on assorted nails . (In Jim’s voice, I hear, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”)

Zooming in on a memento, or on the pixels or painting or other rendering of an original, we see the stunning color, the patterns, the movement, the life that existed as of one moment in time; “Step away, and the illusion snaps in again: life-more-than-life, never-dying.” From a distance, in time or space, we see the unseeable: layers underneath protective or careless coverings, beauty of one kind, preserved or worn away.  Even when something has deteriorated or completely changed shape, we can see stories and history, life and love in what’s no longer to be found or seen in the traditional way.  

In flesh, feather, and delicate bone, my dove likely has long soared from this mortal coil. But there he is.  A blur from purposeful forward movement on black-tipped coral feet; a dab of yellow and a streak of vivid magenta above earth-toned wings, as if he has brushed against a freshly painted canvas; animated open eyes.

Pulling back, he is part of the landscape where our family took its last trip, part of an enduring species found only in such warmth and isolation, a majestic messenger among the creatures whose sounds I listen for every day.

A year ago on Jim’s birthday I spoke aloud to our beautiful beagles.  They listened.  I did that a little bit today.  But just after midnight, when the calendar called up December 10th and frozen rain tapped like weakened woodpeckers against black windows, I spoke aloud to the magical intersection between past and present.   It’s your birthday, I began. . . .

Perhaps I was revisited by that narrator who understood how our lives become entangled with some enduring facet of beauty and love and never let it go.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.”

sunset 013

(Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique) On Nesting and Nightmares

Book Galapagos_101226_717
Jim Glennon (c) 2010

The shot is one-of-a-kind.

These are the steps my husband Jim took in order to get it:

1.  He took us–me and our sons and daughters–to the other side of the world.

2.  The World’s Most Interesting Man guided us to a tiny remote island; he happened to have scaled its cliff side three weeks earlier and noted that an incredibly rare species of bird was nesting and offspring were likely to hatch by the time we arrived.

3.  Jim clambered as directed, to the windy edge of a cliff with a sheer drop to gorgeous green-blue water . . . and ragged volcanic rock.

4.  He balanced facing the nest, built into a nook in the cliff, with his back to the open air and water, and peeked in on this rare Pacific bird as I shouted into the wind for my terminally ill husband to be careful.

He grinned back at me.

Continue reading “(Weekly Photo Challenge: Unique) On Nesting and Nightmares”

Whispers from the Wings

Cerulean Skies
(c) 2012

In a recent post I contemplated Frederick Buechner’s definition of compassion in Wishful Thinking.

A cousin’s comment on that post has had me thinking about another essay in the same book, concerning what we take to be coincidental: “I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know.  Who can say what it is that’s going on, but I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: ‘You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.’”

Well, it may be wishful thinking on my part, but perhaps I did show up in the right places at the right times today.

I heard whispers and roars, and was led into color and light.

It began early in the morning, as a dollop of sun hit a spot on the floor as light streamed through the outline of a flowering tree Jim had planted.  I felt my breath catch when I looked down and saw dancing upon my bare foot a single bright segment of sunlight, quavering from a morning breeze that had shaken the tree through which it shined,  forming a shimmering arrow laced with leaves.  It pointed me outside, towards that sepia swath I described only weeks ago.

The swath is not sepia anymore.

Only handfuls of straw stalks remain at bottom edges where they are being pushed out by broad, healthy leaves which exuberantly have erupted to replace the sadly drooping flora I had been unable to envision recovering green.

Recovered Green
(c) 2012

Continue reading “Whispers from the Wings”

I Spy . . .

When our four children were younger, countless outings were accompanied by rounds of “I spy with my little eye . . . ”  We all scoured our surroundings in search of what was in another family member’s view and had struck the speaker’s fancy.

When I write and work at home, I ordinarily stand in front of a computer monitor, facing out windows built in 1805, towards a section of grass where my husband–tender, in both senses, to the birds–installed his array of bird feeders.

At a far corner of a portion of the inside porch, robins reliably arrive in early spring to build their nests and nurture their babies until they are ready to take flight.  That piece of real estate is just out of my view.

Lately I have been seeing a lot more of Jim’s industrious birds.  They have been swooping regularly into my view, so close they sometimes brush against those 1805 window panes,  making fluttery soft thudding sounds.

I investigated and found that there is a new prime bird location this year, twined and tangled into a labyrinthine architectural masterpiece–a manor built into the landscape of a wreath with which Jim was taken, itself made up of discarded twigs and branches.

Jim would have approved.

(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon

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