Bird Hearts

My hands are full of blue. Blue on my palms, on my fingers, my wedding ring. Not solid blue. Splotches. And the blue shows no signs of coming off soon but I know it will. I believe it will.

I underestimated the blue paint, you see. Figured I could wash the brush with soap and water but it was the wrong kind of paint for that plan which I realized after I laid the wet brush in the palm of my hand to carry it inside to the sink. This is what happens when I paint.

The painting begins with great joy and hopefulness and then devolves into slapstick. Usually, I am alone so the show is private except for the evidence left on my pants, shoes, and, today, my hands. “What happened?” Nothing, why?

I am so in love with painting. I think about running a roller full of bright paint over white walls all the time. The rush of that first roll. Incomparable.

Today I decided to paint birdhouses. We have many of them up here at our place on Lake Superior. Some were left by the previous owner, those are the ones that survived the fire that burned down our first house. So the birdhouses are old, many are warped, and they are weathered beyond description. Yet birds use them. It’s their habit. Home. Home is where their little bird hearts are.

I started today with this little birdhouse that is attached to a pole holding up our ancient wood shed – another survivor of the fire. Yellow, I thought, is the perfect color for this birdhouse. Plus it was a color I had. I am big on using old paint.

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After a few brush strokes, I noticed rustling inside the birdhouse. Could it be a baby bird? No, they’d all left weeks ago. It’s barn swallows who nest here and they were done nesting and having babies. Gone to wherever they go that is better than here when everyone knows that winter is a couple of cool nights away.

More rustling, more looking. Then the yellow and black markings of a giant bee, then two. They flew out, angry, looking for me but I ran down the sand hill with my little paint can in hand, sneaking back later to finish. Except I didn’t really, the house needs a second coat, maybe a third.

Later, I took my new little can of blue enamel and went after the granddad of our birdhouses.

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I could do this all day. Paint birdhouses, maybe paint little rising suns or peace symbols or daisies on them. I could paint a forest of birdhouses that reach from our house down to the sea we call Lake Superior. And all the barn swallows from all over North America could come here to have their babies and leave their little bird hearts so they remember where home is.

The Man at the Boat Launch

He drove up just as we were starting lunch at the picnic table under the trees at the boat launch. A black Dodge Ram truck with a squat camper like all the autoworkers used to have in Flint, pulling a flat bed trailer with a blue plastic kayak and a red off road vehicle, we recognized the truck and trailer right away because we’d passed him maybe a half hour before. He sat for a minute after pulling in, his little spotted dog draped across his shoulders: the dog eyeing us keenly and wagging his tail which we couldn’t see but knew to be wagging from how he looked at us.

The man got out of the truck with Spotty on a short leash. This surprised me because the guy looked like a tough customer, not someone who would agree to leash his dog, more like someone who would let his dog tree squirrels and forage other people’s lunches. He was a cute dog, not my type, but cute enough and he leaned into his exploration of this new place like he was pulling a heavy dog sled.

The man didn’t speak. He walked toward the lake and then read the sign about boating rules. He wore shorts and hiking books, a t-shirt stretched to bursting over what some would call a beer belly. Then he headed back our way, still not talking, no greeting. So I said hello and he answered. Then ensued many questions about how and where he could camp and were there places where he could just go in the woods and camp and put a piece of paper on a tree. He said he was from Ohio and owned property in Lower Michigan but he seemed lost.

He watched us eat. We had such a peculiar lunch – my husband with a leftover fried trout sandwich and me with a hard boiled egg and piece of cheese – that it seemed too weird to ask him to join us yet he stood there, kind of expectantly, waiting for something, the answer to his question, I guess, about where he could camp. I finished my egg and ate a piece of cantaloupe. By now, we’d answered the same question a dozen times and I realized the man was lonely more than he was hungry or he was hungry but not for food, for this revolving door of a conversation about where he could camp. Well, good luck, I said, wanting him to go so we could wrap up lunch and launch our canoe on a big, beautiful lake that at that moment was devoid of any other boats and as calm as a lake could ever be. I could see our old green canoe slicing through the water like I imagine myself swimming in a still, deserted, very blue pool.

He said goodbye and thanks and went to sit in his truck for a good long while looking at a map. I don’t know what he saw on the map. He seemed just to be killing time, and then he folded the map and started his truck, Spotty curled up again around his shoulder like the fox stoles women used to wear at the Methodist Church. That was a long time ago, no one will remember, but they wore fox stoles where the little fox head would bite the tail and that would be the fastener. I know about this. I studied this for years in church.

The lake stayed calm while we paddled but it was hot, very hot. Stable flies, the bane of Upper Michigan, would land on our backs or legs if we came too close to shore. I wondered to myself, how far is too far for a stable fly to fly? The life preservers made us sweat as we paddled over water that looked shallow but was actually deep, the tall, thick weeds creating a false bottom. I put my paddle down to test the depth; no, it isn’t shallow, it is just thick and deep with ropy, green and brown weeds.

Midway, my husband said he’d heard a twig break on shore and wondered if maybe there was a bear. I wondered if it was the man from Ohio finding a place to camp where he could just put a piece of paper on a tree.

Friday Poem

I meant
to write something profound
deep

Move people
impress with my erudition
touch

I forgot
what I would write
in a sea of waterlilies

Instead
I reached in black water
Pulled two slick stems

Wound
white blossoms
in black rope

Floral
masthead for my canoe
just enough

Then I saw
yards ahead in a water forest
a yellow lily

Sacrificed
everything I’d planned
for the last flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humming

Some days the best thing to do is to make hummingbird soup and wait for the guests to arrive.

Today, for example, with that bluest sky, cloudless all day, just a slight breeze, sometimes kicking up a bit, but lovely all day, sweetness like you pictured summer to be like when you’re on your deathbed and remembering that summer spent sitting at the end of the dock swinging your feet and thinking about diving in, the thinking about it being the feeling you’ll remember, the anticipation of the cold, the weightlessness, candy in the cupboard waiting for you, promising.

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Up ahead, we saw four Border Patrol SUV’s parked on either side of Minnesota Highway 61, lights flashing, officers standing nearby. We were headed into Grand Portage, only six miles from the Canadian border, to watch sled dog teams competing in the Beargrease Marathon come into the turnaround checkpoint.

We expected to be waved to a stop but the officers didn’t look up when we approached so we figured they were looking for a specific car and went on our way. It was chilling seeing them there, lights twirling, alarming. It marred the drive somehow, made us remember the terrible things happening in the country.

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Later we learned the Border Patrol was stationed there to stop traffic and provide safe passage across Highway 61 for sled dog teams coming in to the checkpoint. I wanted to go shake all the officers’ hands, so refreshing it was to hear.

We waited a good while at the checkpoint because the teams were running slower than anticipated. We were lucky to be inside then, drinking coffee and waiting, and then the first beautiful team arrived, guided by helpers across the yard where they would settle in next to their team’s truck to eat and sleep. We piled on our parkas and mittens and went outside to watch. It was sunny and 7 degrees. Perfect weather.

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The process of putting the teams to bed was peaceful and sweet. The dogs stood still, their noses in the air sniffing their food cooking in a big pot nearby. They ate a special stew steaming in metal bowls, and then waited for handlers to bring straw for sleeping. They circled as dogs do, like maybe your dog does in your living room, turning around and around until finally settling, curled up as if in front of a fireplace.

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At that is how we left them. Nestled in the straw with their mates, covered with blankets, restoring themselves. We won’t see them waking, hear them yipping, watch them tugging at their lines wanting to go. They will wake up ready and excited for what’s next. Like we all should.

Beargrease #1

At the risk of looking, as Cher would put it, like a sister wife, I bought and intend to wear an insulated black skirt with my parka and mukluks tomorrow. The locals in their Carhartt overalls might snicker but I’m going for it. Tomorrow is the start of the 2018 Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. And we are here because where else would we be?

Tonight at the Mushers’ Banquet, a black hoodie event, I stood in the spaghetti line next to a very tall, young woman with giant rubber-booted feet peeking out from beneath her insulated skirt. I stared at her feet until my husband, Howard, nudged me, “She asked what brought you here.” I laughed and pointed to him. “He did. He brought me here.” She asked if he was a musher. No, he said, unbuttoning his flannel shirt to show a t-shirt that said, Yes, I do having a retirement plan, I plan on dog sledding. She reached over to pull the flannel shirt more open so she could read all the whole t-shirt. It was a curious and sweet thing at the same time. Later, reading her bio in the race program, I realized she was the author of a book sitting on my nightstand at home.

The couple sitting across from us told us they’d been volunteering at the race for twenty-five years. They’d been vet assistants, which was their favorite job, but got let go in favor of veterinary students. That was ten years ago but the words still stung, I could tell. They’d loved that job, now they took the dinner tickets. But still they were there. After a while, the woman bought me a program as a gift. I think it was because I asked her advice about watching the race and listened when she told me.

I love sled dog racing because men and women compete as equals. There’s no men’s category or women’s category. In the Mid-Marathon (120 miles), there are so many women, I entertained the dread that people would stop liking sled dog racing because there were fewer men in it. It was a sick little medieval thought that my feminist self quickly dashed. Of course, sled dog racing would still be popular if it was all women. Like women’s basketball.

The Marathon portion of the race has only eleven racers, only two of them women, including the author with big shoes to fill. They will race 400 miles along the shore of Lake Superior, no walk in the park as the announcer said. One of the Marathon racers is Ryan Redington, grandson of the founder of the Iditarod, “racing royalty,” Howard called him as he leaned over and asked for his autograph, and then he pushed back his chair and took off after two women mushers from Michigan. That Howard, he’s an autograph hound, you see, going after all the best mushers.

My favorite picture of the night, which is blurry because I enlarged it to get all the spectating heads out of the way, is of this musher with his baby. You can’t see it here but the musher’s cheeks were bright red as if he’d come off the trail five minutes before. He had that look of exhilaration and pure joy that you feel skiing through a pine forest and you see tiny rabbit tracks in the snow. I envied him until I remembered I’ve felt that way before.

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