Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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All This Time

September 25, 2023

Matthew Clark

The face of the lake scooped into the little cove where I sat on a rock by the water. Hundreds of circles expanded and vanished as the smatterings from the tail end of a light rain fell noiselessly. My hands would later be startled into fists by the sudden sound of water shaken from a high treetop in the instant before I was able to make sense of what I was hearing.  

But here, there was little sound. The feathery, almost fernlike, leaves of the cypress sending its rain-blackened roots in a complex across the sand gave little voice, if any. The waves lulling against the cove shore at my toes were just strong enough to push perhaps halfway up my foot before sucking back out. As they came and went, they’d pick up and carry small black and brown flecks of stone, smaller than sunflower seeds, a few inches up and then back. In some language somewhere, there’s got to be a word for the way little waves silver sand with gloss before the water absorbs and the earth goes matte again. But I don’t know the word.  

Yesterday, it was hot as blue blazes. On top of that, I got a tiny taste of what a plague of flies might entail; every time I stepped out of Vandalf the White (my camper) dozens of flies would attack my legs within seconds. I quickly discovered these were not typical house flies. These were biting flies. When my air conditioner fainted from the heat, I attempted to walk down to the waterside and read. I’d hoped I could lose the flies. I did for a while, but eventually they located me and I gave up the campground altogether, driving into town, hoping to find a coffee shop. I did find one, but it was closed, so I sat on its shaded porch in the heat and read. 

A high redbrick spire rose up from a Catholic Church caddy-corner from the coffeeshop, and I walked across the street, past a local pub and slot machine joint hoping to sit in the nave. I was beginning to feel nostalgic for last July, when two friends and I walked the Canterbury Way across Southern England. We happened to be there during a heat wave—the hottest on record, I believe. Two of the worst days, we were on black-top in full sun nearly the whole time.

The little churches along the Pilgrim Way became cool respites, and we longed to reach each one, slip inside to lay ourselves on the cool stone floor, sing hymns, pray, or snack.

Most of the time we’d be the only ones there, feeling like we were snooping around someone else’s living room, while at the same time, knowing a palpable sense of rest and belonging. Unfortunately, that experience was not repeated yesterday, as the great gray wooden doors of the church were locked.  

I rounded the corner in search of shade and discovered the church garden. A little nook with a prayer bench and a statue of Mary was blocked from the street with its traffic and, for now, the sun. I sat there for a long while reading.  

I prefer to read out loud. To tell the truth, I’m not sure when that started or why. But, if I’m alone, I almost always do it. I talk to myself out loud, too. I work out ideas, feelings, and try on conversations that way when no one is around. Sometimes I pray. Yesterday, after sitting at the prayer bench a while reading aloud, I got up and paced the garden book-in-hand, voicing the words on the page. A couple of times I felt a little self-conscious, but most everyone was hiding in their houses from the heat, like I would have been if my A/C had been working. And the church was between me and the folks on the road. So I read on, mouthing the words, feeling what they sounded like. 

Two days ago, when I first got to the campground, I spooked a Great Blue Heron. He heaved himself up and flowed away like a beaked ghost, vanishing beyond a stone wall to water I could not see. Not more than a minute later, an Egret, brilliant as a bleached bedsheet, rounded that same wall and entered the cove. He landed and poked his long beak into the water, making breakfast. The exchange of those two birds seemed like seeing the same bird transfigured. I watched him fish for a while, before walking on.  

Today, after the heat of yesterday, I was relieved to be able to take a long walk outside. Half of this campground is closed for renovations, so I walked through the empty places. Children laughed as they played in the pool. I picked a wet acorn off a storm-fallen branch and rolled it around in my fingers. The center was loose, so I plucked it out. The cap was red-brown with layered scales or shingles, or upturned, it was like a chalice surfaced with eagle feathers, or cherubim’s. A minuscule grail, one of millions strewn about, each holding the little round body of what no one would ever dream could become a tree. If we hadn’t seen it proven so many times, we’d never believe it. 

I made my way to a bench facing the lake and sat on the rain-softened wood. Some folks passed by on a pontoon boat, and we waved at each other. One of them wore a yellow shirt, I remember. That reminds me of how a friend who traveled overseas once said that he decided to start smiling at people he passed here and there. Smiling and saying hello. There are people like that — people who are always moving toward people, being vulnerable, being the first to be friendly. I’m not always like that. In fact, sometimes I go out of my way to avoid people — even people I like. But I liked waving at those pontoon boat people, and it felt good that they waved back. Here we are, strangers. And such a simple thing can make us feel so much less strange.  As I think about it, if you’re wearing a bright yellow shirt, you’re likely to be the type of person to wave at strangers. I’m thinking more about wearing bright shirts lately. 

More herons and egrets, hunched, perched on gray stone. Old wizardly fisherfolk. Leggy and grand. I think about trying to sneak up closer to them as I round the corner on my way back. But a friend of mine texts; his little daughter has a soccer tournament in the town where he and I went to college. His family is going there for a weekend this fall. We used to meet for breakfast when we were students, and pray together at the fast food place. I would talk too much, feeling a need to be spiritual by being preachily chatty. I was uncomfortable with stillness. If it hadn’t been for this friend, I might not have learned to appreciate it. He taught me that some folks have wonderful things to say, if you leave room for them.

Conversation was less like two sides making plays for the football, and more like waiting on a lake for the cork to bob as some good thought made its way from the depths to be caught and brought to light. 

Today as I sat by the quiet cypress, the last whispers of rain touching here and there on my skin and on the white surface of the lake, the squat stone seat I’d found worked soreness into my backside. An unseen deer snorted a warning someplace to my right. A watersnake swam from one side of the cove’s mouth to the other. A sleek body flung itself up above the still surface to nab a bug and descended again. Too far away to hear. Too many things to count go on being absurdly green and wonderful, beaming gratefully about the rain and the cooler air. I don’t know where the biting flies are, perhaps whatever hellish crevasse they emerged from swallowed them up again. I do not miss those nefarious knee-nibblers one whit.  

Tonight, I will fry sausage in my van’s tiny kitchen, and make red beans and rice (a favorite when I’m on the road). It’s just a box mix that I doctor up a little. The cicadas will get all worked up as the light dims. The crickets and frogs will have much to say about the coming of evening. A smokey half-moon will climb the sky to glimmer through the humid air. Deer will slip silently across the wide, shadowed lawn, and a squirrel will bark and holler in the tree that overhangs my van. He’ll be shaking his unseen tail at me from the high branches. My first thought will be that he’s scolding me for some trespass, but on second thought, I will think better of him. His hoarse cries may as well be jubilant and coaxing. If he’s scolding, it’s the scold of a happy chaperone at a dance, coaxing us kids clinging to the wall to get out there and move within the delicious music of a world that’s been waving shyly at us from across the room all this time.

The featured image is courtesy of Justin Lee Parker and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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  1. Conversation was less like two sides making plays for the football, and more like waiting on a lake for the cork to bob as some good thought made its way from the depths to be caught and brought to light.
    This, for me. I caught and held my breath, like I’d just seen a pearl gleaming on the ground… I’ve tucked it in my pocket to take with me. Thank you, Matthew. (I stopped there and wrote this comment before I even finished your article… and then I went On, and now at the end my heart feels all tingly and satisfied. Wow. A whole world, waving.)

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