R.I. Miller


Goldfinches have just come to my cherry tree. A cluster of activity, they move so quickly from branch to branch that I can’t quite make out how many there are; perhaps ten or twelve, perhaps only seven or eight. Their chirping underscores this bright blue morning. Transmitting so much energy, so much joy, it’s a shock to realize how short their lives are, a few years at most in the wild. So what else to do but sing? Life is to sing about, or else mourn.

A friend of mine once wrote, “The only sure thing is rusting.” But what was said in the bravura and romanticism of the adolescent whirlwind does sometimes come round again in middle age. Dying does not ever bury itself. It burns into the skin, into the spine. It rattles the cortex and everything we know is scattered, pushed, unconnected as though loose marbles with no resting place were there in our heads.

Every day I make some new observation: this morning, the goldfinches; yesterday, how the late summer sunlight in Maine has an unmistakably yellow cast. These observations are often lost because I’m too busy or too cynical to write them down.  Still, enough of them find their way onto paper – observations and thoughts like milkweed seeds; of all the thousands of seeds that float through the air, only a few germinate and achieve full growth.

It is so hot today that I wonder whether we’ve mysteriously moved closer to the equator, traded places with New Guinea, Nigeria, or the Southern tip of the Indian subcontinent where Dravidian languages are spoken. But it’s not the movement of the continents.

What I am sure of is that it’s another hot humid day and as I drive from chore to chore I feel as though my body is melting, frying almost, in the car. Sweat drips down my back — there is nothing natural about being enclosed by metal on a hot and humid day. The one natural form of relief for me is the ocean. The massive moving ocean that stretches out to the horizon in such a broad sweep I’m confounded by its distance and its expansive reach. The horizon extends far beyond my sight; and though I know from where I’m standing this ocean’s horizon will end somewhere on the shores of France, Spain, or Portugal, to me it goes on: boundless, limitless, forever.

When my last chore is done, I drive to the nearest stretch of beach hoping that by now,  two weeks after Labor Day, most of the tourists have returned to Nayak, Montreal, Darian, Patterson, Manhattan, White Plains, Boston, Newton, and the vast myriad of other places that compel people to come to this spot in Maine, year after year.

At the edge of the sands, where the Ogunquit River flows into the ocean, I plunge in and ride the tidal river out to the confluence of eddies, which, if I navigate them just right, bring me round to the shore again where I stand up in water that’s only three feet deep. But this water, even at such a shallow depth, pulls at my legs — a ravenous water god unwilling to give me up. I am surprised at its power. What is the proper way to appease and placate this primal source? I am drawn to the wonder of play in this extravagance of flowing water.

I dive in the water over and over again, floating on my back then swimming, rolling with the force of the current, floating again, spinning around coming back to shore and jumping in again. The air is so warm — even at 5:30 p.m. — that by the time I walk back to the place where I will get the maximum ride, I’ve dried off; when I jump in again, the water feels as cold as it did the first time.

At some point in my thirties I began to consciously think of being in water, ocean water and mountain streams, as a way of making the ultimate primal connection to the source of all life, to an ancestral past that makes water a blessing and a curse, maker and destroyer.  But on this day as I play in the mouth of the Ogunquit River, the shock of the cold water brings me to myself — to a very present focus. And even though there are other people in the water doing the same thing, even though we occasionally smile, joke with each other, and acknowledge our experience of pure fun, I am alone here too.  

There is only the water and me. I swim to the bottom and come up again, all the while being pulled by the current, which drags me further from shore. Not wanting to test the water’s power to carry me far from land, I pull and pull toward the shore with my best swimmer’s stroke. But I seem to get nowhere until I discover that this oddly contoured sandy bottom is now just three feet beneath me. I half swim, half walk to the shore, and begin the cycle again. When I leave the beach I am satisfied, no longer at odds with the heat and the humidity.

When I was younger, maybe seven or eight, I loved mechanical devices; I loved the whirl and the clank of them, their screech and wail. At times the whole constructed world, the modern world, seemed more fascinating than the natural world. It was the time of the transistor radio and air conditioning. Stores, one after the other, put up signs advertising their newly gained air conditioning with melting ice-cube letters spelling out the words, “COOL . . . Air Conditioning.” Now I wonder what these attempts at climate control, indeed the whole of the artificial constructed world, took from me as I grew up. I wonder what subtleties I have become numb to.

To get close, to dig into the fiber of life, into its cycles — where is the beginning of this exploration? Where is the ending? By late fall most trees will have the following year’s buds in the making; it is all in the waiting. Continue and prepare, one bud leads to another branch then another bud.

Goldfinches have a short life span and they can have two broods each year before their final flight. They sing as cheerfully as ever. Will I think of the goldfinches in the same completely unfettered way again? 

Still, I want…  How can I articulate this wanting, this search for creation out of dying? I realize for the first time that the words are wrong; the vocabulary is mistakenly narrow. Perhaps I have not yet come to truly believe that dying and regeneration are intimately connected — that out of death something becomes. It is an ancient concept: the dying fruit gives its seed, animals are survived by their young, and for some, the hunted animal willingly gives its life so that others may live. There is no end, only continuation.

Both my parents died of cancer. My father died many years ago in his mid-forties and my mother, who never remarried, died not long ago in her 80s. My father was a machinist, my mother was a seamstress. A couple of years after my father died my mother went back to school to become a nurse. Each of them died within months of being diagnosed with cancer — a wave racing toward the shore — no way to stop or hinder their end. Our world was small, bright and, when those deaths happened, very pained. Captured in photographs and home movies, these moments remained present after I put them away.

Death is a personal tragedy, and longing and loss are personal. To write about them is to converse with myself, to make that conversation public leaves me feeling uneasy. But here I am, being carried by the current.

Being and not being — it is difficult to go beyond that simple and obvious fact. My sister is six years younger than I am; the two people who knew us in ways that no one else can are gone. I’ve come to realize how very slender the thread is that anchors my memories to this world. In this quest to see life on its own terms, I recognize and believe for the first time, that life encompasses death. This recognition makes me realize that the passing of our parents, of those we love best, even the death of a finch, too, is part of life.

How can our bodies carry the seeds of our death? How can it come round to swallow us whole? Cancer, this cluster of cells that forms then divides and divides and demands to continue to exist and grows so ferociously that it devours and kills its host. Cancer strikes one out of every . . . . Somehow the statistics don’t matter because when it’s your loss, the odds could be one in a hundred million, it is still yours to bear. And if not cancer then a host of others, or finally slow collapse and disintegration — leaf to soil.

How to understand our beginning and our ending? I want an understanding that will change everything. Perhaps I misunderstand. Am I making it more complex than it is? So let me simplify. I want life to be either one thing or the other, not both at the same time, not death contained in life, yet the more I consider it the more I see that life and death are one.

There are times when I wish I could reverse what has happened, or remake life. I want to go back, shuffle through the years and return to a moment I’ve decided was pivotal. I want to go back as I am now, with my present self and savor the time, make the right decisions, say the right things. I want to go back to the same ocean, the same river and make a proper crossing. But, how can I? I have arrived at this point by making all those crossings. By going backward do I hope to avoid the only certainty the future will bring? At times I have wanted to free life from death and toss death away. But there is no tossing it, hiding it, or covering it up. On my most cynical days, the worm of death seems to be grinning at me. On other days, I simply say, “The world is open, dive in.”

There is no way to remove death from life and make life immortal. This is my persistent struggle, and, when I allow it, nature gives me clues about the resilience of living things and the necessity of death. As I consider the struggle I have with understanding and making sense of life, not just of life, but that other aspect of life, death — seeing death as a necessary part of life exposes the simple truth about the cycle of living things. Death is an undeniable part of the cycle of life. If that seems ironic to me, is it because I do not see the whole of life and all it embraces? I strive to catch the breath of life and I know that living here in the land of plenty I am graced beyond belief, yet death is sorrow even to the most blessed among us.

Some days I feel closer to understanding and absorbing life’s circle. Other days, when I wear a grim mask that manifests my despair, I am far from accepting it — yesterday, today, and tomorrow all bound to that moment. What else to do but sing? For whatever comes next, song or sorrow brings more challenge.

This is where the current has dropped me — on this lip of sand where I remember the goldfinches and their song, the force and pull of the water, the blanketing air, and the flash of sun on the waves.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Green Briar Review in 2012.