Ross Gay has inspired me to try to write a brief piece every day, focused on a moment of delight from that day. I discover more things to delight me the more I engage in this practice, as he promised.
May 23, 2021
If Hope is A Thing With Feathers
I spent yesterday setting up a new fish tank--a relatively recent passion that has evolved to be as much about the aquascape, the layout of rocks and wood and plants, as about the fish. This is my fifth tank, and my family might say it is one too many. But the fish tanks provide a sort of solace. I like fish and cats and birds. Admittedly not every single one of them, and not in equal measure. But still, overall I stand by these affections. I’m less sure about people. People? People can go south on you.
I started keeping tropical fish soon after we moved back to Portland, which at the time seemed like a great relief since Tom had landed a (supposed) dream job there, and I was happy to leave the small town where I had just been fired in a particularly hurtful fashion. It was then--when we were all together and starting fresh and I was feeling optimistic, albeit still licking wounds-- that I began keeping fish. I wanted the beauty. The undulating silence of moving underwater. I imagined it would be like sinking slowly into a bathtub until even my head was fully submerged, the water a buffer from the betrayals. The desire to keep fish had been simmering for years, inspired by my father who had, as a young man, kept what he called Siamese Fighting Fish. By the time I came along the only fish he kept was a petrified piranha mounted and displayed on his desk. (Note that his interest in fighting fish was consistent, but the need for beauty dropped over time, in favor of teeth.) The piranha sat on his desk and seemed to me to be a sort of alter ego. The way he would have approached the world, if he were not himself, or rather if he could let loose a version of himself. There were people he would have liked to bite. But he could not. Would never. So there it sat, the piranha: fun to contemplate, safely immobilized. While not a piranha, my father was a sort of Clark Kent, mild mannered in shades of brown and grey, but with Ernest Hemingway impulses burbling beneath the button-down shirts. One late night, for example, he and a few of his more macho (and probably quite drunk, come to think of it) friends took their Land Rovers and Jeeps careening up the hills behind our house, somehow finding a path where there was none in a mad dash to see who could reach the top first. I sort of loved that about him. My mad-dashing father, whiskey-loving, story-telling, petrified piranha but still full of panache. We’re all like this, aren’t we? That wild mixed up mess of love and glee and barely repressed disaster threatening to break through at every turn. It’s amazing we make it as far as we do.
It turns out fish keeping involves more chemistry and death than I had envisioned. Algae on the plants, ick on the fish. Hours of work, moments of peace. Still, I love my beautiful fish. I willingly change their water and feed them and plant their tanks and study what sort of substrate and light and fertilizers are best to create and maintain the beauty. I spent most of yesterday setting up another tank, the work a sort of Zen practice. First carefully decide the tank placement (it's hard to move a tank once it's full of water!), then add the substrate, play with multiple layouts of the hardscape until the look pleases you, then add the plants, then the heater, filter, lights, water. No fish go in yet, no, not for weeks. Did I mention the long preparation and the fleeting peace? Did I mention Zen? Did I mention the pleasure of having weeks to contemplate which fish I will select for this tank?
There are hummingbirds in the courtyard of our little complex of townhouses. When I sit very still in the porch chair, they come within a foot or two, right up to the flower boxes on the porch railing. Their long beaks plunge deep into the petunias, their wings blur, then they skitter off. Just an arm's length away they pause again, hovering and tasting at the neighbor's overgrown honeysuckle vine. I have never and probably never will “keep” birds. I know many people do, but for me part of their beauty is their illusiveness, and it seems pointless to try to restrain them. I sit still, my breathing shallow, when they appear. When they depart, I am suffused in a lingering afterglow.
Months go by when there are no birds, except the occasional somber flock of crows, and I only fully realize how much I missed them when they reappear, which is happening now: robins first, then delicate tiny creatures with yellow bellies, and yes, even a few hummingbirds. For the days and weeks and months without birds, I have peacock feathers in a vase. And two matching ivory carvings of peacocks, tall and elegant, which I inherited from my grandmother. I keep them because they are beautiful, but there is a bittersweet truth encoded within them: an elephant was killed to get those tusks, and skilled craftsperson carved a beautiful work of art. Death and beauty. Cruelty and art. A year ago I bought a photo of of geese rising off a pond in the morning mist, just grazing the water, their bodies still heavy, still of the earth even as they lift skyward. The birds all shades of cream, fly up and away into a world awash in shades of gray. Forever caught in the act of leaving, but not yet gone. The delight I take in this photo is subtle and varied. There are days when it inspires a sweet melancholy, as if it's captured the grayness of life and the inevitability of being left behind. There are days when I go with them, the urge to rise overcoming gravity.