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Life Among the Reeds
Most people love the Spring. The ice melts, the ground thaws, buds spurt from the trees showing to be very promising blossoms. We begin to remember what warm actually feels like; we hear the familiar returning melody of chirps and caws as we wake up on these lovely spring mornings. But to me, Spring means one thing: Mud. Lots of gloppy, sticky, sneakers sinking a foot into the earth mud. More precisely, mud behind my house, which consists of a large back yard with a small alcove to its side. This recess leads to a large marsh stretching as far as the eye can see to the left and right and about half a mile across, and in the Spring, becomes particularly muddy, and thus any human entry into its depths are unfathomable, lest you sink up to your neck and meet an exceptionally muddy end.
My first venture into that hidden escape in my backyard was the day I first moved into that house. I was in 6th grade and we had just moved from the other side of town, but the two houses seemed to be worlds apart. My old house was in the middle of town, which is not saying much when you live in a suburb of shoreline Connecticut. As my family grew, we picked up and moved to the outskirts of town, a place I’d later find to be the hideaway for acres and acres of typhas and cattails and thousands of wheat-like reeds thrusting towards the sky.
Move in day was a day of exploration. I took in every single room completely, wandered around the backyard and found a small clearing witch provided a lens view of the marsh, which would later become my safe haven. It was the middle of a New England winter, and the long grass was crunching with frost under my feet was the only noise I heard. The reeds towered over me looking like an enormous Iowa cornfield. The clear patches led to a river separating it from the rest of town, it separated my peacefulness from the hustle and bustle of life around me. I saw potential in every direction that I looked.
The next day I brought my best friend with me to plow through the unknown, walking far into the sea of reeds and stamping down ten-foot square rooms with small paths leading to each other. Our imaginations ran wild. We had our own world and we could be whoever or whatever we pleased: secret agents, spies, a knight in shining armor and a damsel in distress; there just weren’t enough hours in the day. We had brought a blanket to lay out on the flat, matted ground and when we grew tired of our world of make believe we laid on our backs and watched the sky. The openness of it all was liberating. “Jor, what does that one look like?” “I don’t know, a blob?” Discouraged by his lack of mind’s eye, I knew the correct answer was two monkeys playing a game of hopscotch; he just told me I was crazy. I don’t know if he ever saw what I saw, but I began to look past the clouds that formed their ambiguous shapes in the sky. I saw past the atmosphere, the stars and the sun. There was a peace and a stillness by being in a place so untouched and untainted; at first I felt like a trespasser. I bargained with myself: I’d only use it for inspirational and pensive purposes. I then reasoned that I was not a trespasser, I had taken a place in nature and made it my own. In years that followed I would find that I’d do a lot of reasoning in that spot where I had laid next to my best friend, while he looked at the clouds for what they were, and I saw them for what they could be.
The next day I selfishly told Jordan that we probably shouldn’t go back. I made up some excuse about how I felt bad ruining a place that wasn’t ours. In fact, I wanted it to be a spot that I could use for myself and my thoughts. Being a ten year old boy with a microscopic attention span, I doubt he thought anything of it. I returned however. I brought the same blanket and laid it out on nice days after school and watched the sky. No thought could escape being pulled through my mind. There was something about being out in the middle of such a whole nothingness that sparked my thinking. I became diagnostic, logical, rational. I had possibly become the most analytical middle-schooler there was. For the next four years I’d go to the same room we had stomped out on that frosty February day and let my mind go. Sure I thought of the hallway gossip, love octagons, and other petty things at times, but it really was a place for deeper thinking. Staring into the sky I thought of the universe and what it held, its depths and its limitations, about our own human expanse, potential and boundaries. Was the sapphire blue I looked into the same blue that my mother saw, that my friends saw? Did we look down into that same blue after this life, watching humanity like tiny ants under a microscope? I wondered where and what I would be at twenty, at fifty, at eighty-five. Would I make it to eighty-five? Then, today’s a dangerous world, would I make it to twenty? Even though I began to over think at times nothing could keep me from the hours I could spend pulling apart any and all questions that would come to me. I threw my thoughts into the sky, the breadth was empowering. I was free to roam my mind but I also became a slave to it.
I couldn’t talk to others about these things, but I could talk to myself. There were times I could have sworn that there were two of me laying on the same blanket I’d carry out, two people breathing the same salty sweet air, hearing the rush of the river close by. I’d half expect to see two sets of footprints on my way back to my house. I’d pose a question, and free of my own mind, the other me would answer back, sometimes making perfect sense, offering a logical and reasonable response or explanation. Other times I would stump myself. My inner monologue never stopped; it worked through the questions with no answers.
A question missing a legitimate answer would be why I stopped going. As I got older, I frequented my secret retreat less and less. Maybe I had a firmer grasp on reality than my ten year old self. Perhaps I had less. At any rate, in the middle of sophomore year my visits became less than infrequent, and by the end not at all. Maybe I had lost the innocence I needed to allow myself to succumb to my own thoughts, I was at a point where I always needed to be in control. Even though I stopped going I still found myself recurrently becoming lost in my own thoughts.
“Your father had to go to the hospital this morning.” The words sounded tinny in my own ears as my brain tried to process their true meaning. My first thoughts were, yeah, well decades of smoking will do that to a person. The ride to the hospital was silent, but the quiet roared in my ears as a battle between all of my thoughts began to wage in my head.
I’m not one to cry. Since the beginning of high school I could tally the amount of times on one hand, so walking down the linoleum tile under the glare of overly bright lights I didn’t know what to expect. Then I saw him. Through the glass in a mess of tubes and wires he laid there pale and lifeless, unrecognizable. I stood outside and stared. Then I moved inside and stared. “He came in and he wasn’t knocking on death’s door, he banging on it trying to kick it down.” Nurses hardly ever know the right thing to say. Even so, I didn’t cry.
After a year long hiatus, the moment I returned home I ran to my room and pulled down a blanket from the top shelf in my closet. Almost stoic, I walked outside, across my backyard, through the clearing and walked down the path that I had cleared five years earlier. I resumed my usual spot and waited for it to begin, but it wouldn’t come. I tried to look past the clouds, but I couldn’t see past their shapes. One resembled an IV drip. Another looked like a hospital bed. By then my eyes began to burn. A nurse holding a clip board. My eyes were wet. I heard his arduous breathing. I tasted salt. I turned over and for once I looked not to the sky for answers but closed my eyes and watered the earth. The openness had become daunting instead of liberating, I needed the solidness and stability of the ground. Maybe I could find my answers there.
I don’t know how long I stayed there. It was long enough to stop feeling the cold, for the frost to grab hold of the cattails, and the sky to turn dark and ashen while stars twinkled with a cheeriness I couldn’t appreciate. My dad eventually returned home in good health, even though the thought of seeing him in his greatest vulnerability still made me sick at heart. I haven’t gone back there since that night. I needed to learn how to cope without secluding myself from the world; I had literally been hiding in my own mind. I’ll save my trips for the most important thoughts I need to evaluate.
I spent so many summers, falls, and winters in that secret world behind my house. I prayed for nothing bad to happen in April, May, and June; the dreaded months when I could not go to collect and gather my thoughts. The snow and frost that made my world sparkle and glint in the sunshine created a moat of mud which was no doubt impassable. I was cut off the one place I wanted to go most. My dislike of the season grew more and more with each passing year. Now that I need that place less and less I’m beginning to appreciate the season more and more. There’s something about the renewal and rebirth and greenness that becomes increasingly appealing. I know all of my thoughts will always be kept and preserved in those ten square feet, the sky will never change for me to be able to look up to and search within it. I haven’t gone back there since that night, but the openness and sheer expanse created my mind to be just as open, even when I was enclosed in a such a small space. Maybe someday two best friends will find the world that I had created and turn it into one of their own, with my thoughts still there hanging in the air. They’ll lie on their backs and watch the clouds roll by on a clear day with their whole lives ahead of them, and the openness will inspire their minds as well and they can wonder what they’ll become.