Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.
– Tao Te Ching, 10
We are dressed for the day. A Tupperware of cinnamon toast and eggs is ready for Bug to scarf down on the commute. The only thing left is walking the dog. I offer Bug the choice to stay in the house with granddaddy or come with me. He fiddles with his legos, weighing his options. Usually the dog’s constitutional is an all-business trot down the cul-de-sac. Ten minutes, tops. While I know better than to take the kid when we are in a hurry, the situation calls for adaptation.
“Gramma Genie can walk her,” he tells me.
“Gramma Genie is in Dallas, remember? Your great grandma Mardy fell and broke her hip.”
“Oh yeah,” he remembers. “What did they have to do for the operation?”
Many mornings, Bug will hang around my mother’s room chewing the fat as she gussies herself up for her workday. My father sequesters himself in the basement to write. In the blessed reprieve, I can buzz around packing lunches and walking the dog, half hearing that mode of relentless interrogation only a 5-year-old can pull off. This week, the big bedroom upstairs is quiet. Bug tags along after me instead. Great Grandma Mardy needs my mother right now much more than we do, so I attempt to move along at a steady clip while also keeping expectations down where they belong. Bug’s ceaseless chatter accompanies me. I explain as briefly as I can how hip replacement works and what the word “rehabilitation” means. I remind him he is supposed to be choosing between the dog and granddaddy.
Bug glances at the wan light coming from a too-quiet basement. The old man is no match for the outdoors. “I want to walk with you,” he tells me.
Racing down the driveway, Bug kicks through a puddle. It has rained torrents every night for the better part of a week. Giant mushrooms bloom low in the grass and a creek the length of the block has formed along the edge of the blacktop. Fenway snuffles, squashing tiny wild strawberries as she goes. The scent of honeysuckle drapes itself over the mist.
Ahead, Bug sees Cleo dart into a gauze of brambles. Our skinny calico cat often joins us on these jaunts, keeping her haughty distance. In an instant, she is invisible, her patches blending into the spongy decay of last season’s canopy. Bug turns to me, impulse flashing across his face.
“Let’s go on an adventure!”
I feel a sigh gather steam but I quell it. It is getting late. The dog roots around in the puddles. She has peed so we are done here. “It’s awfully wet, baby,” I say, “and we need to get to school.”
“It’s not too wet,” he says. He steps off the blacktop and his feet sink into the muck. I groan. He shrugs. “It’s okay. It’s only a little wet.”
The cat is visible for a moment, stalking her imaginary prey. She creeps further into the shadows. Bug watches her, keeping one eye on me. He is primed. “We have to chase her,” he explains.
“We’ve already gotten all dressed for school. I’m wearing my work clothes.”
“We can change our socks. You will dry off at work.” He grins at me, momentum quivering from toes to scalp. His gaze twinkles with something like. . . flirtation? I’m a sucker for a charmer. No and Yes start throwing punches. The crowd presses in, choosing sides. The determination to distinguish myself in my profession joins the clock in clanging out support for the clear favorite.
The underdog’s backers are silent.
Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.
Sometimes the hardest steps are the simplest to take. The playground scuffle goes on, but I tear myself away and look only at my son splashed across the canvas of the morning. How many of us get to kick off the workday by ducking into the wild woods? My grandma in that post-op hospital room would probably surrender her reserve seat in heaven for one last moment exactly like this.
“Let’s go get that kitty,” I say. I unclip the dog’s lead. Bug chants “Yay, yay, yay!” as he ducks under the vines and plunges into shadow. We are deep in when a breeze awakens the leaves and showers us with a morning-after rain. We look up through the blue-green awning at the sun making its way through a weave of branch and cloud. Bug and Fenway follow the incensed cat down into a creek-bed and up onto a soggy log. She leaps away and we part a congregation of weeds whispering at our calves.
Our ragtag foursome dips and climbs through summer then winter and even next year’s spring. We burrow through the earth’s core and emerge from the mouth of a cave that smells of seawater and smoke. We wander through a valley teeming with cockatiels that screech from the low branches of mango trees. Every person we have ever known has grown old and died. A waterfall as tall as a mountain washes us free of memory.
Bug parts a curtain of ivy and we spill out onto the road. The cat bounds back towards the house, her tail arched in irritation. My son’s face is wild with pink light and his legs are streaked with mud. “We came out all the way down here!” We have exited fewer than twenty feet from our entry point, but I share his wonder. The continent has shifted in our absence, and nothing will ever be the same.
We dash back to our house and peel off socks and shoes. I take the stairs two at a time to change the whole outfit because three inches of damp trouser cuff might blow my cover. I may be a feral thing, but I still have to don my breathing apparatus to survive in the world of steel and glass.
No one knows where we have been. How could we begin to explain? We slipped through a tear in the damp fabric of the morning and crawled onto the beach alongside those first gilled beasts. Only a skittish cat, one lop-eared dog, a boy and his mama recall what happened here, but our recollection is fading fast. In the car, Bug and I speak of quotidian things, of weekend plans and hip surgery. When we attempt to fit what we have witnessed into the shape of language, our tongues founder.
I know only this: When all the clocks in the world demanded we stay on solid ground, we stepped off the edge. We made our way back, but we may not stay for long. Do we have years or decades? Will we will reach ninety-two or knock off next week? No one gets out of here unscathed. For every moment we claim as our own, we will pay. It is only a matter of time.
If you open yourself to loss,
you are at one with loss
and you can accept it completely.
Walk the dog or stay home? Get wet or stay dry? Everything we love, even the very selves we occupy, might be gone in a blink. Knowing this, what choice do we have but to step over and meet what is here?
Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.