Songs Without Words


I always look out the window before I close the blinds to go to sleep. By now I’ve been indoors a couple of hours, more in winter. Pleased with my warm friend-sewn blanket and wool slippers, some essential element is missing. I cannot put a day to bed without first greeting the night.

Mostly I see a mess of orange clouds – the underbelly of daytime grey turned into Vegas by night. Or Sauron’s eye, when my mood is bleak, of late. Tonight it’s stars. My upstairs window is none too clean, and I have to double-check it’s not a reflection. But there’s Orion practically shouting at me, and I race downstairs into the frozen night.

It’s not frozen, actually, for all it’s January in Oregon. I’m standing out here in jeans and a medium-warm plaid shirt, next to a street still busy at this hour, and if this deep-blue night isn’t velvet, but more like clammy silk, well, it’s wrapping me up all the same. And it is deep blue – small miracles – like the sea where the continental shelf drops all the way off, and you know it’s an unconscionable distance down to solid earth.

And maybe it’s singing Orion’s up to, not shouting. He and the other constellations my father taught me are sparkling, popped against the night like pewter buttons, newly shined. They move around a little bit, like the giant person who sewed them on is up there breathing, admiring her beautiful glinting fasteners.

There’s more to the constellations, I know: I’ve seen their pointillist density, their curious feathered shadows. But there’s too much light in metro Portland to see all the millions of milky stars the sky washes up. Orion here is an outline of himself, his one red shoulder like the coldest ruby – frozen fire, fresh-wrested from the earth. A few stark strokes paint him in all his essentials.

No wind tonight. Wishing the road away, I can almost feel the quiet rippling into the void. Our great douglas fir muscles up next to the hunter, ocean green on darkest blue, the rich and pleasing colors of the unclouded globe from space. There is something to be said, after all, for artificial light.


I have this perfect place that I go in moments like this. It’s my front porch: wide and deep, with beautiful Craftsman detail in the raised molding that marches around the whole structure with a pleasing mathematical authority. There’s an Adirondack chair pulled up right next to the railing on the lefthand side, where I can wrap myself in wool plaid, and indulge both my day’s-end weariness and my desperate desire to drink the stars.

This is a perfect place because it is a made-up place. I see this porch in my mind’s eye every day, but that doesn’t make it any more attached to my house. I see it clear as the stars tonight, when I’m ready for sleep, but unwilling to surrender this utter sublimity to the frankly boring pleasure of a warm, soft bed.

I’d watch birds from this porch, in daylight: beeping nuthatches and five-alarm woodpeckers; bushtits by the bushel, and chattering masses of chickadees. Birds by day and stars by night: how comforting. I’d come out for sunrise from this porch, or sunset, sing to the wind rippling on river or lake or sea.

I’d be perfectly happy, too, if I had this porch. I actually think this, fairly often. That it is false does not quench the small hopeful ember cupped in my jealous little heart. I want privacy, and birds, and quiet, and stars, more than I want a higher income, more time to read, or the honey-gold hair I wore loose in my youth. I rushed out with pure joy to see the stars tonight, but here I am coveting another life instead. I can still feel the joy but now the restlessness is stirring up behind it.

I’ve acquired several diversions for this frustrating visitor, who is always right but never very wise. I can offer them a walk, which they tend to decline (and either wander away or lie in wait for my return.) I can open certain books, dropping in wherever they’ll have me. Jane Austen is about the best for this purpose, with her deceptive mannerly dialogue, and observations like knives sharpened in secret behind expensively upholstered chairs.

Or I can run a bath. How has it never occurred to me to do this at midnight? Scented with rose soap, the water’s delicious at first. I’ve been reading about sea swimming. Slipping in, I can’t imagine wanting that goose-pimpling embrace, that shocking strength unallied to my body.

I’ve lit candles, to preserve the dark and still read about the sea swimming. Amy Liptrot in her memoir The Outrun describes crisply the fear and trembling, the painful clarity, the vague familiar freedom of floating on the living deep. The tame water around me lacks personality. It doesn’t speak, as water should, much less toss stones between wave crests or surprise me with soul-eyed seals. It’s hotspring-warm, but without the secretive small currents and whiffs of infernal mud. In its bleak bathtub sojourn, this water has forgotten that it’s coming from or going to anywhere.

Within ten minutes I’m contemplating a trip across the street to the river. I don’t get past the imagining stage, though. I’m so far from compassing anything more extreme than going back out to sip the stars. I used to run in rainstorms for fun, didn’t I? I used to swim at night in my home river, an inward-curving teenager desperate for communion, terrified that someone would find out. No one did, until now, and that’s for the best. There weren’t words, then; there was only river.


Candlemas morning: the world tipping over into light. I’m not brave enough to swim, but I’ll dip my fingers in the frigid Willamette, trace my personal signs on my forehead and cheeks. Our mountain, the moon, my river. It’s like saying my name to myself – my wordless name, so much bigger than just me.

I do this reflexively – catching sight of alpenglow, or opening my eyes to the moon in my window. Rushing out to greet the glorious gift of stars.

I also do it intentionally, in the nearest body of water, marking every seasonal shift by the ancient calendar of solstice, equinox, and cross-quarter. The turning year speaks to me, more than any particular season or sight. It slows me down to wonder and give thanks. My pagan little naming ritual helps me hold onto that. It also reminds me of my baptism. Sometimes I cross myself with water, too. We need all the belonging we can get: fingers dug into the sand, eyes fixed on the heavens.

Last night, in the hours between enchantment and awakening, restless wind erased the stars. Pendant branches on a line of empty birch trees slant like rain, thin and black against a greying sky. Crows and cormorants greet each other in the name of the crisp cold wind. Bald eagles are circling low to the river, loosing the curious fluting squeaks I hear only in winter. How I’ve taken these past few days of calm and stars for granted. This morning everything is on alert: another storm is coming.

It rises from the north and west, and it has not yet reached to reel in the dawn. Reflected in the riverpath out of the east, the sun is rising: delicately, radiantly, defiantly striped in the rainbow colors of an abalone’s secret shell.