The thing with feathers …*

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Luke 13:10-13, excerpt from Luke 13:10-17, NRSVUE, lectionary gospel for Aug. 21, 2022

‘Bound for eighteen long years,’ he said (Luke 13:16). She heard, and she paused in her praise. Had really been so long. From when would she count it? From when her body’s bearing had become fixed contortion? Or had the binding begun farther back, when the first spider-thread of unease ensnared her? She had dismissed the twinge, whenever it was. Told herself the day’s load had been too heavy, she’d twisted something trying to keep up. But she kept twisting herself trying to accommodate each next sure-to-pass-soon circumstance. Not denying the ache, exactly, but ignoring it. And each day she kept going, that day’s thread twisted together with its fellow until she’d found herself bound by a sticky, wrist-thick rope that kept her hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight.

When had she last stood straight before this day? The crowd rejoiced at the wonder they had seen. And she in the midst of their sounding joy, was suddenly cast back in her memory.

A goldfinch had caught her eye, and she’d turned her head to follow its flight into the thicket. She’d lost sight of it then. Stood herself still and peered closely until she glimpsed its lemon yellow deep within the tangled branches. A smile had spread wide across her face. She’d had to share the wonder. ‘See!’ she pointed out to passersby. ‘See! A finch, right there!’ Two had paused their own progress and followed her pointing finger with their own eyes. They did not see. She watched their expressions turn from expectancy to puzzlement, then a slight withdrawal towards doubt. ‘See! There!’ she repeated, as if words alone could make it visible. Her insistence kept them there a beat longer, but neither her words nor her pointing finger made them see. The bird was too well hidden to be noticed if you hadn’t already known where it was. Then the goldfinch moved, and its motion made it visible. ‘Oh!’ they all exclaimed together as it flew up from the bush. Another finch flew too, two small brightnesses flitting around each other, darting through the air. ‘Look!’ they exclaimed, “See!’ The sound of their delight drew another from the doorway to see its reason, and so it spread.

How long since she had seen a flying brightness that made her smile? She had walked hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight, her gaze on her own feet moving along the dusty road. She hadn’t thought of birds. But maybe a tiny thing with feathers had been set within her own soul, too hidden to be noticed unless you knew it there, yet in its own subtle way resisting the rope that had bound her so firmly, working to unwind even one cobweb thread. For she had come here this Sabbath, as she had before, treading the path worn by others’ feet before ever her own had started their journey of persistence.

She had not come asking or expecting birds. She had come in fidelity to the unsuspected feathered thing hidden in the thicket of her own self. The insistence of habit had drawn her there without her knowing why. Then hope had flown and shown itself. Had seen and called her over, pronounced her free and laid hands on her. It had felt as if one hand pulled on her shoulder and one hand pressed the small of her back and together the hands reshaped and stood her straight who had not stood straight for eighteen long years.

She stood now in the midst of the crowd’s sounding joy. Wonder was among them — a bird darting up from the constriction of cares quotidian and extraordinary, delighting with its brightness and its airy flight, delighting even she herself who was its sign, re-awakening her to its presence and its power. A smile spread wide across her face. She had been waked again to demand. ‘See!’ she said, ‘See!’ She had been waked again to the promise that there is something to demand.

Demand the vision. Demand the movement that makes visible hope and joy and life — on the Lord’s day and every day.

* First line from Emily Dickinson

Life asked back

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:13-21 [NRSVUE]

‘Life is short,’ the worship leader reminds us. Her benediction is a summons to lovingkindness and a statement of blessing. ‘Amen,’ we say, and stand as the family recesses with the urn that bears their mother’s remains.

Life is short. It turns in a moment. I study the gospel text. Inheritance and division. Abundance laid up for future years. The expectation of ease. It’s almost too apt. This morning’s funeral. Others before it. Death come after illness; death come in an accident. I’m turning the age my mother died. Our house is filled with things brought here from our parents’ households and things we accumulated ourselves.

I read Jesus’ parable carefully. The rich man sees the abundant harvest and imagines his future settled. Now he will enjoy the fruit of his husbanding, the bounty his fields have produced. (Notice the phrasing. The fields have produced this plenty, not the man, however diligent his efforts.) The man speaks to himself, tasting already the delights of further speech with himself, ‘I will say to my soul, Soul… Psuchē … Life …

Then God interrupts his intimate anticipation: ‘Fool! This very night your psuchē they ask back from you.’ That’s the literal translation of the Greek. ‘They demand’ the man’s psuchē, his soul [12:19], his life [12:20]. ‘They…’ — third-person plural — ‘… demand’ — present tense.

Who are the demanding ‘they’? Perhaps the undefined pronoun is a substitute for the passive: ‘Your life is demanded of you,’ a circumlocution for divine action, for God recalling the life-breath given but for a time on this earth. God is, after all, the speaker. God’s next word may suggest that ‘this night’ marks a transition from present tense to eternity: ‘And what you have prepared, to whom will it be?’ All the possessives the man had gloated over — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul — suddenly untethered from identity in relationship to him. Whose will they be?

Or reconsider the question. Who belongs to whom? Is the man the one who possesses or the one who is possessed? The Greek allows the possibility that the things prepared are the insistent ‘they’ which ‘this night’ demand? The man preoccupies himself with projecting prodigious barns as if abundant harvest and gathered goods demand this planning, as if it is not undertaken for himself alone but is exacted of the possessor of such abundance.

I try to hear the tone in God’s interrupting ‘Fool!’ Does God thunder judgment, the man’s overnight demise, or does God’s mouth twist wryly as he recalls the man’s attention (our attention) to the present that very moment unfolding? Listen to the rich man’s gloating over abundance and recognize its skimpiness. The man speaks to and of himself and construes his self as possession (‘my psuchē’). God’s interjection recalls the man to relationship — the relationship that actually is (the rich man and his riches), the relationship being constructed (the possessor possessed) by the attention absorbed.

Life is short. It turns in a moment, and it comprises all those moments’ turnings. The preoccupations of our days. The plans we turn over in our minds and those put to action with our hands. Each of these moments demands of me my life. God’s interjection recalls me to this. Not just eternity in-breaking overnight, with the shrill of a telephone bell, but eternity unfolding in all those incremental turnings. My life is demanded of me. This very night, and tomorrow, and the night and the morning after. Resist the preoccupations that increasingly diminish the self of me. (Building bigger barns for my own soul only.) Turn towards those that risk the possibility of self opened and enlarged, enriched towards God.

Life is short. Life’s brevity is vast. Let me be increased as experience and expectation interleave to ground myself in this very now. Ask what it demands of me. Attend to its answer. Listen for the word that tugs me forward to meet it, then go to meet and be met by the presence in the summoning present.

My Sister’s Portion

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42 NRSVUE

Oh, God, it’s Luke’s version of Martha and Mary again. I like the sisters, truly I do, but I prefer John’s portrait of them to Luke’s. John presents them as a pair, friends to Jesus, loved by Jesus [John 11:5], whom they call ‘Lord’ and welcome to their home.

Luke’s depiction sets the sisters at odds with each other. Or so it seems. Or so it often is read. One is either ‘a Martha’ or ‘a Mary,’ and Mary’s heart takes the posture preferred. Sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he says. Mary utters not a word in Luke’s telling. Which suddenly makes me wonder whether the story is about her. Mary’s listening silence triggers Martha’s complaint. Does that make it the point of Jesus’ response?

So. Start again. Sit at the text’s feet and listen to what it is saying and wrestle with what it might mean.

Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. And on the way, he is welcomed by Martha. Sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, but Martha is ‘distracted’ by ‘much serving.’ Not the plural ‘many tasks,’ as the English has it, but a singular ‘much.’ ‘Much,’ singular, ‘diakonia,’ service or ministry, singular. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?’ Martha asks, and Jesus replies, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.’ ‘Many.’ Jesus does not repeat the narrator’s singular ‘much’ but shifts to the plural form, ‘many.’ Is this an accident of idiom or might the number matter?

‘Mary has chosen the good part,’ Jesus tells Martha, ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Is Mary’s portion ‘good’ or ‘better’? The Greek can be read either way. Why prefer ‘better’ if it’s not required by the grammar? What is there in us that measures the worth of Mary’s choice in relationship to Martha’s. Is ‘the good’ only good when and if it is ‘better’? Cannot the worth of both works be seen and known? Does the definite article (‘the good’) mean there is one good for all people at all times or is Jesus responding to Martha’s charge about Mary’s choice at this place in this time, when Jesus is paused to be welcomed on his way to Jerusalem.

Maybe had Martha’s effort stayed single — ‘much service’ — it would have been affirmed. She started well enough, receiving Jesus. But Martha herself, distracted, introduces the comparison in asking Jesus to re-instruct her sister. Maybe this is why the text shifts to plural: Martha is no longer set only to her singular service but has become anxious and troubled about something else as well, her own work in relationship to Mary’s. Jesus’ plural (‘many things’) draws attention to this. I listen to Jesus’ words. Does he say that Martha chose poorly or that Mary chose well? Is ‘Martha, Martha’ a caution about Martha’s own diakonia or about her judgment of Mary’s? Mary’s choice wasn’t about Martha; Martha’s choice should not be about Mary. ‘The good portion’ — the right diakonia — is about God.

What is my right diakonia? Or yours or ours? What is the single end — even comprising multiple smaller works, just as setting supper requires procurement and preparation and presentation, whether the meal is one pot or many small-plates — what is the single end, however much of a muchness, that calls? Resist worry over others’ portions, as if their worth lessens mine, as if worth is finite. God’s promise is not cut up into shares made smaller with each soul counted in. There is work for all, a work for each. Sometimes our tasks overlap in obviously mutual support; sometimes they seem so separate that their common end must be taken on trust. Sometimes the service is of long and steady sameness; sometimes it shifts in response to the spirit’s blowing.

Resist the comparison. My worth with another’s. Today’s work with yesterday’s, or last year’s, or next’s. Embrace, instead, the company. All of us aimed towards God’s common end, a grace that is greater than the sum of our varied works.

Here, you sit and listen to the talk. I will overhear the conversation as I move in and out of the kitchen, set the table to the sound of voices. I can set myself to my portion as you set yourself to yours. And when I am caught by a word or phrase suddenly rising to the surface of the talk, I will look across to you and see you looking across to me — sisters’ eyes catching — and together we will feel smiling love looking on us both. We will realize that in welcoming the kingdom-coming, we have been welcomed by its presence now.

Listening to the Wind*

crossing the Bay, Oct. 2000; photo by Katherine Brown

The wind’s a wild one tonight.  It whistles and roars. The halyards rattle and clang against the mast.  The boat rolls and rocks.  It’s not especially comforting, the sound of that wind rising and rising and rising.  The boat seems very small to be afloat in such a huge and solemn sound.

We are anchored in Reed Creek — ‘A bit tricky to get into that following breeze,’ Paul had said as we bounced up the Chester River.  Breeze indeed.  It was bona fide wind by my definition, blowing us along at seven knots — even with two reefs in the main — and whipping the river into a foamy chop.  The girls, five and two, had started the sail in the cockpit with us, but then the wind rose and the temperature dropped sharply, and they retreated below.  Elizabeth unpacked coloring books and crayons for them both.  Paul and I took turns going below to put on more clothes, layering on everything we’d packed against the windy, bright cold.  After a while, the girls gave up coloring and rolled themselves in their sleeping bags, foot to foot on the wide settee, half-dozing, half-enduring the wild ride up the river. 

Now, anchored in the creek, we’ve all retreated from the cold cockpit.  The computer voice on the VHF weather channel says it may dip below 40, frost warnings inland.  We are crammed into the tiny cabin; tumbling over each other as I prepare dinner.

‘This is the best part,’ Elizabeth says, ‘all close together eating dinner on the boat.’

After dinner, Paul reads the girls a story.  In the middle of it, Margaret rolls off his lap, curled up like a little hedgehog and, surprisingly, soundly asleep.  Elizabeth is awake and helpful as we maneuver Margaret into a fresh Pamper and sleeper and bed.  I look at my big girl and smile and say how glad I am to have an adventure with her.  She looks at me and smiles back but doesn’t reply.  She seems slightly puzzled at the thought.  I wonder if this actually is an adventure to her.  She brings the same casual intensity to this boat, the real one, as she does to her pretend cruises at home, sailing the coffee table on the bounding rug, wearing a real life jacket and chatting with imaginary friends from books.  Burt Dow and the Giggling Gull are right there with her as she sets out in the Tidley Idley to rescue Little Tim and the Old Sea Captain. Those are her adventures, not these real outings on the Bay.  What she likes about the real boat, I think, is the intimacy, not the adventure.  She has the people she loves the best in the world right to hand, literally.

In the marina last night, we saw a boy trailing his dad back toward their boat, talking nonstop all the while.  ‘I like the boat, Dad.  I mean, it’s not like home.  There’s a lot of different things to do at home,’ the boy had paused, considered.  ‘And, well, actually, there is nothing to do on the boat.  But you and me and Mom, we are doing it all together.’

Still the boat rolls.  The low banks of the creek are not much protection from the wind.  It rises and roars, and the boat quivers accordingly.  The girls are asleep.  Paul and I are awake listening.  My eyes are dry and tired:  too much sun, too much wind.  But I am awake because of the wind’s ceaselessness and because of the girls’ trusting sleep.

Paul goes on deck again to make sure the anchor is holding, and that the rode isn’t chafing.  All is safe, despite the sound.  I go to close the open hatch against the cold and, glancing up, am caught instead by the sight of the round white moon shining through the moving, broken clouds.  I am held by its brightness and by their motion.  Paul comes below again.

‘Did you see —’

‘The moon,’ he says.

The stricter discipline of small-boat living creates a wider quiet in my mind.  It is not a deliberate refocusing but the natural result of embracing a more immediate responsibility and a closer connection to the world around.  I plumb more deeply where I am, what this is.

Rising wind.  Flying cloud.  High white moon.

I am surrounded by the water.  Together with my husband and my daughters right to hand.  Rocking on the water, listening to the wind.

*essay originally published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Jan. 2003; cruise taken Oct. 2000. The emotions associated with being on a small boat on a wide water in a wild wind are not limited to that literal circumstance — which is why I chose this essay to blog now.

Recognizing Joy*

Boats anchored near St. Michael’s, 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

The bliss of boating is how quickly you are very far away and how connected you are to everything around.  We have shipped not only our lines but, for a time, our workaday world.  We are sailing across the Chesapeake in a 30-foot Cape Dory, chartered out of Annapolis, now sailing to St. Michaels.

It is a chilly day, drizzly and dim.  Paul has on his oilskins; the girls and I are in slickers.  Elizabeth is three, a gallant, gay sailor-girl in a bright orange life-vest, a too-big green slicker, a purple hat and bright blue rubber boots. Her braids curl with the damp.  She leans over to watch the waves and hums happily to herself.  ‘The water is like Play-Doh,’ she says. ‘It has fingerprints in it.’  Margaret is four-and-a-half months, a snug bundle tucked on the floor of the cockpit.  Her little face is framed with the hoods of two jackets; her hands are inside her sleeves. She waves her arms for a while and smiles at us, then slips off into sleep, in a small boat on a wide water.

We arrive in St. Michaels before dusk and anchor in Fogg Cove.  The maritime museum and its Hooper Strait Lighthouse are behind us.  The velvet green lawn of the Inn at Perry Cabin is before us.  We’ve been in St. Michaels before; we’ve looked at this water from those shores.  But now we are seeing the land from the Bay.  It’s an unfamiliar view of a familiar place, and we relish the unexpected charm of the known made strange before turning to chores — changing damp socks for dry ones, heating chili for supper.  We hear the chime of church bells and a clock striking and the honking of geese overhead.  The two girls are in the V-berth; Paul has cribbed it in so neither can fall out.  Elizabeth coos, ‘Go to sleep, Margaret.’ Soon we hear them snoring, and we look at each other and smile.  Paul checks the anchor light. ‘Katherine, come.’  In the dark, a swan is swimming by.

Annapolis to St. Michaels, St. Michaels to Rock Hall, Rock Hall back across the Bay.  A wonderful run:  the wind steady and strong, we on a beam reach.  The main is up, and the jib, and the only sounds are the creaking of the lines, the squeaking of the wheel, and the slap of the waves against the hull.  The sky is blue but cluttered with clouds.  We sail past the Baltimore Light.  We sail into the Magothy and past Gibson Island and past Dobbins Island.  The light is growing quiet by the time we put the engine on; pale, green beams shine through the clouds onto the shore.  We motor on in search of an anchorage, sliding around a curve and into a quiet secluded little cove.  A wooded shoreline, the trees touched with russet, just starting to turn.  A few houses, with docks and boats.  No one out but us.

Our last night aboard.  We have beef stew and the last of a cheap bottle of wine.  The light grows clearer and more golden.  Clouds lit in peaceful glory.  We take mugs of milky coffee back on deck and watch the fading of the light.  The water very still, reflecting the pink and blue of the sky.  The highest clouds are lit coral-pink by the sun, the lower clouds purple-grey.  We see a great blue heron, here a screech owl, listen to the fish splash and see the ripples they make, circles that catch the light.  Margaret dozes in Paul’s arms.  Elizabeth leans into my knee and sighs and says, ‘This is very nice.’

The morning is pearly:  cloudy at dawn, then clearing slightly for the sun, mist rising off glassy water.  Elizabeth climbs into the still damp cockpit.  ‘Elizabeth!’ we call. ‘Come back down — it’s still wet out there!’  ‘I’m looking at the world,’ she tells us matter-of-factly.  ‘It is very beautiful.  Did you know God made the world?’  Paul and I look at each other, then turn to see the world with Elizabeth.

We bundle the girls again into sweaters and life vests and hats.  Margaret is in a jolly mood.  Elizabeth is happy winding a short bit of line around a winch.  We leave a curve of tiny bubbles as we motor slowly out of the cove and into the broader river.  The world here is all pearl.  The light is a suffused, pale, creamy grey.  The water is gently rippled glass, carrying in it the shapes and colors of the clouds above.  Water and sky match, endless and shining.  And in this spell-world, our small boat is caught between gleaming oyster sea and cloudy oyster sky.  We are connected to familiar things in unfamiliar ways, and recognizing joy.

* Another old essay revisited; this an edited version of ‘Recognizing Joy’; originally in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, April 2000.

Learning to Read*

photo by Katherine Brown: BHS open to Genesis 22

The book arrives two days after I order it online. The UPS man drops it off, bangs twice on the door and is already halfway back down the walk when I retrieve the package. I open the box. The book slides out into my hand. It is a small, heavy volume with a red-brown cover: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. I riffle through pages that still cling to each other. The print is small and squared with tiny flourishes and dots. It looks random, not like letters. It takes faith to believe that these shapes can be read.

The first morning of class, we chant the alphabet through: “alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” We are all seminarians. We are also social workers, teachers, headhunters, lawyers, associate pastors. We are Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed Church of America and United Church of Christ. We are single, married, divorced and widowed. Megan is pregnant; Ann’s husband is in Iraq. We are 11 women and three men gathered for six summer weeks at Wesley Theological Seminary to learn Biblical Hebrew.

I spend the first night murmuring the letters, copying them until my arm aches. The next day we meet the vowels, the tiny dots and dashes generally placed under the letters. We sound out words. We dive into translating texts. I struggle with the shapes and sounds washing over me, unable to imagine them ever resolving into meaning. “Trust me,” the professor insists briskly, “You’ll get it. In two weeks you’ll be reading this page.” I am overwhelmed, as in a wave, swirled head over heels until I’m not sure which way is up, dumped sandy and spitting, eyes streaming, on the shore. And then the next wave is along. No sure footing, no knowing how to swim under and through in this wide sea.

“Why are you studying Hebrew?” my husband asks. Even in this first week I can tell him.  Already we have glimpsed the wonderful and terrifying breadth of the language. The noun that means “words” also means “events” or “actions” — speaking twined with doing. The verb that means “to be” also means “to become” or “to happen.”

We learn to parse verbs. Hebrew verbs carry their own subject an object in the affixes and suffixes attached to the three-letter root.  We learn to peel away the extra letters, to add back the missing, to consider again the whole.

I learn to read with my tongue, as well as my eyes. Sometimes this doing — reading aloud, involving my body as well as my mind — leads me to understand what I think I do not know.

I start to recognize some of the words. The four-letter word that English Bibles translate as “the LORD” is one of the easiest to see. Faced with a new passage I look first for this word; this leaves that many fewer words to translate. Scholars suggest that this Tetragrammaton is derived from the verb root “to be, to become, to happen.” The very name of God, then, encompasses not just static perfection complete and achieved but the causing yet to be, creation yet becoming.

Week after week we take quizzes. Each time my initial response is a flight of panic — the wave curving over me again — how can I tell the meaning of so many Hebrew letters? (No longer do I doubt that they hold meaning, only my own ability to access it.) I limit my focus.  Attentive discipline and wild flights of try-this, and word by slow, abiding word the text emerges from the murk.  I catch echoes of the English I know, but the familiar stories are given new and true force in their unfamiliar guise.

We learn grammatical rule after rule, each of which seems compounded with as many exceptions. (In intermediate Hebrew, we joke, the professor will reveal that there really are no rules.) The patterning is apparent but elusive, as much art as science. Slowly we start to build a sense of what is present and must be peeled away; what is missing and must be added. We are not memorizing the language but we are beginning to internalize it. Not yet swimming, but entered into the rocking water.

The class picks up speed. We are getting through entire chapters — although still, the occasional selection of wrong verb root results in a Mad Libs-type translation. We are giddy, enthusiastic, frustrated, amazed. One by one we dream Hebrew: dancing letters, difficult passages. We design a T-shirt with the legend in Hebrew.

The final exam is three hours of translating a passage we’ve not seen before. When we finish we gather on the hill for a picnic — a half-planned potluck with boiled eggs and falafel, pita and hummus, just-picked tomatoes. We stand in a circle, holding hands, hearing the blessing in Hebrew. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.

I didn’t learn to read Hebrew in six weeks. I learned that I shall be reading this sea for the rest of my life, even knowing I will never understand it all.

*Another throw-back post, in honor of the semester starting next week. This is a slightly revised version of the essay run in The Washington Post as ‘Taking the Plunge into Biblical Hebrew,’ Aug. 30, 2004. Then I was the student. Come next week, I am again the instructor, for the first time online.

Running Blind

Preparation for fall teaching — multiple classes, institutions, and online platforms — is keeping me from writing weekly posts. Rather than let this blog go entirely dark, I thought I’d republish essays originally printed elsewhere.

This originally appeared in the Sept. 2004 issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

Fog off the Miles River; 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

I am crouched in the bow of the boat, shivering in the chilly damp, peering out into a surrounding blanket of white, trying to find our mark.  Stop thinking metaphorically — this is a literal fog. Keep your eyes open; keep looking.  As hard as I work to keep my attention focused, though, a part of my mind clicks separately.  So, this is what it is to be wandering blind.

We had waked to pearly gray fog obscuring the shores of the small cove where we’d anchored.  The trees on the nearest bank were barely visible; those opposite were totally hidden.  We waited out the morning, pleasantly idle at anchor.  The first white spot of sun showed around ten; it took another hour to burn through the fog and warm the cradle of our cove.  We lifted anchor around 11 and motored slowly out of the creek.

The sun shone hazy white and warm on the smooth ripples of the South River.  We went slowly, in no rush.  We were headed to the West River — barely a morning’s ride away.  As we approached the mouth of the river, just past Selby Bay, I went below to get lunch.  I came back up a few minutes later to find that the fog had rolled back in.  Blown in from the open Bay, perhaps.  We had just come up on a mark, and even as I watched, the fog started to spread shreds of white between it and us.  Paul quite matter-of-factly said, ‘Hold her here while I go below and check my compass course to the next mark.’  We have no GPS or radar, so he works with compass and parallel rule and paper charts.

So here we are in the fog again, deprived of the sun’s warmth.  Paul is back at the wheel, I’m at the bow, staring into the thick nothingness.  Eight-year-old Elizabeth stands in the cockpit to see over the cabin; she calls out crab pots in our way.  Five-year-old Margaret looks behind; she calls out crabpots in our wake.  We pick our way slowly forward.  The fog is thick gray-white.  The water is gray with odd black gleams.  All we can see is this circle of soft fog, this circle of strange water glinting like fish skin.  Another boat motors slowly toward us out of the fog then passes away into it again.

Paul heads for where the mark should be.  He has plotted a course between the marks which are closest together rather than those which are linked most directly to our destination.  We hit the first few marks dead on.  The wind is light, and Paul’s course is true.  One lays more to starboard than it should have, but close enough to spot.  Paul shifts course slightly and keeps going slowly forward.  The girls call out in excited voices.

And I, crouched and cold, look at the strange sea.  My mind beyond attentive eyes wanders still to simile and metaphor. Remembering an older woman who once told me, ‘It’s not knowing the answers.  It’s learning to live with the questions.’  So this is what it is.  This steady procession from mark to mark to mark even as we study the surrounding shining for signs and a wider view.

The circle of fog does not surround us evenly — sometimes it draws close on one side and seems broader on the other.  I look not only for the marks but also to try and hold this unearthly sight.  To try and hold this weird sense of being surrounded, suspended and separate, outside all normal space and time.  We have no view of the farther shore.  We can see only fifty yards to one side, a hundred toward the other.

I wonder whether I am starting to perceive an intimation of blue above.  But we are headed toward the sun, and the fog is thickest and most dazzling white at this angle.  Impossible to see anything ahead.  To the right?  No … Yes!  Definitely a line of shore somewhere between the fog and the water.  A reddish-sandy shore at the base of a cliff. The water still glinting sharkskin and the fog soft white, yet between them, the welcome sight of Dutchman Point and its sheltering, white-winged building.  The autumn-rich tones of the grass and trees and the overlaying vagueness of the fog look like a painting by an old master.

As the fog burns off further, we can see above it towering cumulus clouds, white on white, lit with just enough blue to be blinding.  The next mark is for the Rhode River, and the next after that for the West.  The fog is mostly lifted, here, though we can see a hint of white, still, behind us toward the Bay.  I go back to the cockpit.  Paul and I look at each other with unvoiced relief.  The sun is warm.  The view is lovely, shore and houses and boats together.  The rest of the trip is easy.  Soon we are back in the slip, unloading and cleaning up for the drive home.  All the normal chores.

Still, though, I can close my eyes and see that fog.  The thinking shining white, the weird glinting water.  Still, in my mind I hold that since of blindness made visible as we traveled strange water toward home.