Monday, February 13, 2012

Survival of the Fittest

That summer day, the Gingerbread Man came home with a bag full of goldfish.

"For the pond," he said. Calling this water hole a pond is a bit generous. But there it is, surrounded by moss and ferns and springs, and you love it.

That summer you volunteered to take the compost out to the compost pile, just so you could head to the pond afterward. There was something magical about the sleek, orange bodies sliding in and out among the water plants, and the single frog who kept them company, hiding under fronds of ferns. You would hear the plop as he leaped into the water if you came too close.

By summer's end, only one fish remained. The others were surely victim to fisher cats or raccoons, or maybe even a fox. You named the sole fish Angst, and made a home for him in a goldfish bowl. His fishy antics kept you company all winter. You sat in the armchair on one side of the television, and he swished around in his bowl on the other side. Though you couldn't see him, you could hear little blips and flips, but each time you stood up to see what he was doing, he innocently swam in circles.

Must be the tides, you thought.

Made you look, he thought.

When spring rolled around again, you put Angst back in the spring-fed pond, where he was joined by a new crew, among them Goldeen, Blackie, and Cardinal. Once again, you made trips to the pond, to sit on the rock under the oak tree, and breathe in the green-ness of the place, watching for flashes of gold and orange in the water.

Time passed, the days grew shorter, and a chill settled over your neck of the woods. It was time to bring the fish in. Four hardy souls still swam in the wild waters. Your small fishbowl that housed Angst suddenly seems not only small, but cruel. The fish never made it inside that winter.

Come spring, you saw no happy flash of orange in the still waters, no sign of life at all. Had it been too cold? Did the fisher cats get them? The raccoons? You felt bad. Life is life, regardless of whether it is obtained by a 29-cent purchase at Wal-Mart or not. Visiting them had made you happy, on those days when you needed some sign of life other than the ten-and-under boy variety.

You did not buy any more fish, for your summer would be spent far, far away, and there would be no one to feed them, no one to seek out their magic. The pond remained empty that summer, but for the frogs.

Winter came yet again, and the fishbowl gathered dust and cobwebs on a shelf in the garage. Two floors above the fishbowl lay a sick gingerbread boy, a cranky gingerbread boy. Nearby was a mom, frustrated and housebound. At the end of that very long day spent inside, that mom longed for fresh air sucked into her dry lungs. She longed to stand under the comforting trees, and be a small thing, a part of the forest and the earth and the water.

That is you.

You grab a flashlight and follow the Gingerbread Man out to the compost pile.

"You mind if I go to the pond?" you ask.

He follows you as you crunch through the gritty snow. You don't need the flashlight, because the moon is full and bright, casting shadows on the blue snow. You pass by the rope swing, then go down the path veering to the right at the fork. There, two steps away, is the pond. Its surface is still and solemn, and you feel the frustration draining out of you, seeping out through your feet into the frozen ground. You feel calm just being here.

On a whim, you turn on the flashlight and aim it toward the middle of the pond.

You blink.

There, in the middle of the pond, is a goldfish, fins flickering.

He turns and dives back into his Atlantis.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Perfect Days

The groundhog brings you surprise tickets to see an open rehearsal of the Boston Symphony. The Gingerbread Man takes the day off, and the two of you drive into Boston. After a mad dash to Symphony Hall, you sit in the midst of its splendor, amazed at the sound that comes from the stage. Amazed that a conductor can distinguish among so many threads of sound. Amazed that a composer could hear these things in his mind, then write it all down in a code that you can't even begin to understand--writing it down before it flits off and away.

The sound is so full and so rich, it is nearly tangible, as if you could slice it like cheesecake and ingest it. You watch the conductor, his movements, the response of the musicians. You look up at the windows, the statues in alcoves, the lighting, the seats--all while the music lifts you and carries you around. The musicians pause several times, as the conductor takes them through a few measures, over and over again, until they're perfect.

The music stops, and the house lights go up. It's intermission, but you have to leave. There's only time for lunch, then the drive back before the school bus arrives. So you and the Gingerbread Man enter an Ethiopian cafe, and order peanut tea. When it comes, it's scalding and it burns your tongue, but it is sweet and creamy and perfect. It's the sound of the symphony made hot, frothy, and drinkable. When your food arrives, you remember that Ethiopian food is eaten with fingers. So you dig in to red lentils, yellow split peas, and spinach and potatoes with the pancake-like bread, licking the sauce off your fingers.

Feeling full and happy, you walk back to the parking garage, reveling at being in a city again, reveling in the shapes of the buildings, the pattern of the cobblestones, the lines of planted trees. And the drive back gives you more time with the Gingerbread Man. Bliss.

When the gingerbread boys come home, they are at peace. You direct them in homework, dishes, piano, and you don't even have to make supper, because you made two pots of soup the day before, and there is plenty left over.


At the end of the day, you stand by the bathroom sink, contemplating what a perfect day it's been. Perfect concert. Perfect lunch. Perfect drive. Perfect afternoon. Perfect evening. 

It gives you pause. 

In each day is some good and some bad. It's the natural balance of things. You believe this, fully. When you have a really bad day, this philosophy helps you to seek out the good in the day. You always find some. 

A tiny space opens up in your mind, a small niggle. Where was the bad in this day? Not like you want to be pessimistic and seek out misfortune, but there was none. You want to simply be grateful for a happy day, but some part of you wonders when the bad will come. When will the axe fall? 

Even as you think this, the gingerbread boy wakes up with a migraine. You sit up with him, rubbing his head for an hour and a half. You wish he didn't have this pain. You wish you could take it away. But you know that into each life comes some good and some bad. Into each day comes some good and some bad. This is his challenge for now. There will be other things in his life that will compensate for it. By 1:30, he's asleep again, and your perfect day is over.