This morning with coffee on the porch I reflect upon several things: the recently passed equinox and the gathering of Fall; the discovery that another old friend has died; the summer past; why I am the way I am; the relative perspective of mind; the gathering monsoon prologue due to sweep in from the Pacific this weekend with torrential downpours which will pound on our roof here in the mountains.
The days are shorter than the nights now and we are descending into darkness, slowly. The forest air is poignantly sharp, russet maple leaves blanket stretches of the river bank, the green glow burning in the canopy above us as we walked through summer now casts faint autumnal shades.
The weather shift took me to my barometers. I have a digital one, the sensor mounted outdoors and magically informing the station indoors. Next to the sleek station an ancient brass Proteus barometer leans propped against the wall. It is analog and I suppose obsolete, yet elegant in its craftsmanship and comforting in its humanity.
I noticed, not for the first time, that the Proteus needed to be recalibrated, and as I thought about that I recalled how and where I had acquired it. I bought it from Hazel in 2006. One thing led to another and I found myself searching for Hazel on the internet and learned she had died in 2011. The sort of message one expects in the fall.
I wrote a story about Hazel in 2006. A true story. All of it. Like most of my writing it has become a part of my personal archive, rarely shared. It wants “polishing” I suppose, and from time to time I visit it and tweak a bit here and there, knowing even as I do that the tale is told perfectly, and is done. I titled it “The Bridge of Souls,” and in this moment I’ll share it once again.
The Bridge of Souls
I never forgot her, and never will. We encountered each other for less than a half hour long ago. Forty-five years later we met again and shared another moment together. In between those moments more than twenty-three million minutes passed for each of us. Nearly 400,000 hours. Over sixteen thousand days. A lot of living. A lot of people, places and things met, known and left behind. A long sojourn of now forgotten specifics, merged and distilled into a broad gestalt marked by certain bright sparks. In our lives we spent barely more than an hour together. One of those certain bright sparks.
I met her the first time in 1961 when I was 13. My family was on the Great American road trip, leaving Colorado Springs, Colorado in mid-June, motoring across the northern plains of Utah, Wyoming and Idaho to the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon we took US 101 and drove down a rugged, beautiful coastline. At Bandon, Oregon we left the highway when it curved inland and followed a back-country road along cliffs overlooking remote beaches that wandered between volcanic rocks towering above crashing surf. It was mid-morning when we pulled onto the gravel shoulder at a remote wayside gift shop.
I remember it like a photograph; an elegantly solitary story-book shanty situated at the edge of a gigantic ocean beneath an endless sky.
There was no-one inside. My family milled around the porch, waiting for someone to answer our calls and knocking. I saw her first, walking across the road with a bucket in one hand, a surf-casting pole in the other. She called out to us, saying it was too beautiful to be indoors, so she’d gone fishing. She unlocked the gift shop door and told us to go in and have a look around while she put her gear away. My family went ahead, but I followed her through a gate on the south side of the shop.
In the bucket there were surf perch and agates, a glass fishing float, a piece of net, driftwood, old colored-glass bottles. “Neptune’s treasures,” she said, winking at me. It was the name of her gift shop. She sparkled with an intrinsic curiosity and kindness. Her eyes were framed in lines drawn by wind and sun and salt and humor, etched deeply by a constant look-out for the good, the interesting, the treasure of each moment.
She was kind to me. Independent and plain-spoken, wise and strong. She shared her life. She showed me her garden, the corn on the south wall with a surf perch under each stalk, the lush tomatoes gleaming, the deep and delicate garden colors burning like fire and ice in the coastal sun.
She told me what it was like to live on a cliff overlooking the ocean and sand and rock of southern Oregon, where wind sweeps the dune pines and plows inland under afternoon thunderheads rising over inland valleys. A place where she could feel the very earth breathe.
It was a place where new treasures appeared daily, on the beach and in the heart. In plain words, in paused moments when our eyes met and reflected each to the other, she informed me of life, and joy, and the choices to be made on the long road ahead.
I wish that I could add you to that moment we shared, instill it into you so that you would share the ground, the baseline instinctual substance of it. But words have limits, and beyond those limits there is a universe, solid and brilliant, the source of all reflections, its wholeness so soul-filling that when we try to catch it in words we find ourselves returned to a small place, neither as satisfying or as real. No video recording, no faithful capture of the form of the moment when souls meet souls can capture the substance there.
When I returned to the area 45 years later I began following the memory. My wife Lenore and I and our dog, Charlie, were on a camping vacation on the southern Oregon coast. I left the coast highway at Bandon and headed west toward the ocean. At a gas station I asked the attendant about the old beach road. I described the rocks in the surf, and he told us how to get there.
The rocks were the same, the beach, the cliffs. We observed them from behind steel railings at a new, large, elaborate concrete lookout. Now the road was bracketed by hotels and expensive vacation houses and burgeoning developments. It seemed doubtful that anything had survived the years.
In my memory she had been old, ancient to my young eyes. I didn’t think she would still be there, but I had hoped perhaps the house had survived. Maybe there would be someone who remembered her and could tell me her story. We got back in our truck and continued down the coast. Soon an old house with a cluttered front yard appeared on the left. As we got closer I said, “I think that’s it.”
It was. Older, faded, worn by the years. The sign that burned so brightly under the clear blue sky in 1961 was nearly unreadable now. A seeming tsunami-borne crush of debris had overwhelmed the place. Driftwood burls and roots, huge nets and glass fishing floats, bottles, signs, bells, hatches, transoms, a fractured dory, an endless volume of flotsam, jetsam and wrack had piled in the yard and washed up against the walls.
A piece of paper tacked to the wall instructed visitors to ring a painted cowbell on a rope, or the watch bell nailed to the wall. In sun-faded, sand-blasted windows there were colored bottles and eccentric collections of salt-air bric-a-brac. Looking through them I saw worn display cases piled over with bounty. Overflowing nooks and groaning shelves and corners piled high. Decades of sea-wrack and treasure. Neptune’s vault.
There was no answer to the bells. Exploring, I could still feel her presence. Yet there was something else. In the attached open garage, an anomaly; a clutter of garage sale debris and detritus. Clothes and skillets and plates and cheap flatware, electric heaters and faded linens, old curtains and shoes and chairs, a dumping ground of not-quite-used-up throw-aways. An incipient seediness working its way into the place.
Her spirit was still here, the foundation-rock beneath the burgeoning clutter and ruin, but I suspected she was gone. It looked to me like someone else had taken over, some sort of commercial pack rat peddler living in ruins soon to be razed for cash and yet another view motel. Finally, finding no-one there, we left.
Driving back through town we passed the local museum, and I decided to stop and ask about Neptune’s Treasures. I wanted to get the rest of the story if I could. The Director there listened to my story and said, “You must mean Hazel. Why, she’s not gone.” She smiled and said, “She looks like she could be a hundred and ten, but she’s probably only around ninety now. She’s still there, far as I know.”
She began looking through the phone book on her desk as she spoke. “She’s a bit of a celebrity, as a matter of fact. In the late 1980’s a famous writer mentioned her in a book. Not by name, but everybody here knows it was her. He was a photographer, and his photograph of some glass bottles out there was displayed in the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art. At least that was what the story said. Yes, here she is. I’ll call and see if she’s there.” She was. And she would wait for us.
On the way back a slow, breath-holding rise of anticipation. I had tracked down a memory more dream than real. Soon I would see her again. A broad arc in the patterns of my life, returning to where it began. In the truck with Lenore and Charlie we are three companion souls on a shared sojourn, a bubble of fullness gathering around us now, the rising swell of a looming epiphany. When we got there I walked through the yard filled with Neptune’s treasures and rang the ancient bell.
And there were her eyes, sparkling at me. Wise, interested, knowing; still on the lookout for treasure. And I felt it. Across time, in a near-complete absence of the usual familiarities of connection, we were still connected. I reached for her hand and ended up giving her a hug. We both smiled, each knowing the other wholly in a single holy instant. There we were, together, in the place where paths begin and swing wide across a grand creation and return again. In the place where time disappears and we are home.
I introduced her to Lenore and Charlie the Lab. She said Charlie looked sort of like a sea lion, and gave him a pat. She looked into Lenore’s eyes and then nodded, giving her a big hug. “Come on,” she said, “I’ll show you around.”
“It’s been a long time,” she mused. She went behind the counter and lifted up a guest register, old and tattered, bursting with comments of travelers from around the world who had found joy and delight in Neptune’s Treasures. It went back to 1964, too late to have captured a memento of that first visit. Folded inside was a newspaper article about the book she was mentioned in.
She didn’t remember much of the man, just a fellow in a hurry who took pictures of some colored glass bottles in her window. “People ask about it, so I show them that.”
She pointed out the window, across the road. “Been some changes here. When that hotel went in, it blocked the view. Now when I want to look at the ocean, I have to close my eyes.” A little smile. “One of these days I reckon I’ll just keep’em closed and see it all the time.”
Waving her hand at the shop, she said “The place is worn now, but I don’t see harm in that. I know it’s run down some. I can’t keep up with it like I used to. I’ve got a bad sciatica and can’t get down to the beach anymore. But there are still treasures here for those who care to look for them, and I’m still here with them.
“When the locals sold out and moved away they put the stuff they thought was too good to throw away in the garage. It’s not exactly treasure, more of a dumping place now, but there are useful things in there, too, if you look.”
Treasures for those with eyes which see. The oldest lesson, learned again.
Too soon it was time to go. I had found the barometer as she showed us around and paid for it. She rummaged in a cabinet on the wall behind her, and produced a seed packet of forget-me-nots. Emblazoned on the front of the packet was her name. I signed the register: “May, 2006 and Summertime, 1961. I forgot you not.” Feeling the fullness of the seed planted in me so very long ago.
I hugged her in the leaving with tears in my eyes, and she told me I’d made her day. In the truck the fullness overcame me and I cried, filled with an extraordinary and ineffable joy.
Later, driving slowly toward the end of day, I wondered about the writer/photographer who passed through that place. Did he know his source of light? Or were his eyes open only wide enough to catch the single ray captured in a piece of glass?
In Hazel’s realm there is a brilliant grace woven mysteriously and subtly into the fabric of a well-lived life. When his itinerant eye caught a certain quality of air and light in five colored glass bottles, did he also see her? The shimmer of her ancient harmonies in the salt-wind and sun-glazed panes? Did he see the spirit of Hazel centered in all the array of patterns? Did he know her as the all-pervasive, radiant source? Did he see the thousand perfect pictures behind the bottles?
Or was he content to click a shutter and leave behind the crunch of tires on gravel, carrying away only the merest hint of a profound and pervasive grace? A piece, like a heart in a cooler, to be transplanted not into another human breast, but merely to the wall of a museum where the harvester is glorified and treasure is contained and controlled and does not burst the soul into light, but only tickles it a bit?
I wondered. Sad at the thought that the fullness of life available to us all at every moment can remain unknown to us.
A day later I am sitting with Lenore and Charlie at a table on the veranda of a sidewalk bistro in a coastal tourist town. It is a community of artists and shopkeepers, of tasteful promenades and reworked coastal architectures where the soul’s art crosses paths with capital. The collision produces a jarring, odd juxtaposition of truth and lies.
At the next table over four people have met to share their religious histories. They pray publicly and earnestly and courageously before lunch. They converse and the biographical fragments drift over to us, threaded with affectations of speech and precise articulations. There are dry, memorized liturgies of personal epiphanies, regurgitated as easily as an eye blinks.
Usually I’d leave them to their paths; leave them to their journey and recall myself to this place at a table in the sun where I sit with two great souls. But today is different.
It is like a snake has entered the garden. My hackles rise as the too-loud conversation, on display, proceeds. In their conversation “I” reigns. It is the single word most often spoken. God has been retrospectively inserted into their histories like an all-purpose, all-explanatory footnote. Each story is egocentric, varnished to a faux-theocentric shine. Their tightly circumscribed consciousness radiates patterns. These are not the soaring, singing, crystalline perfections of Hazel’s life. The lodestone is unknown; their needles spin aimlessly within the local. Separation prevails. Ego and Deus, unreconciled.
And I wonder, seeing once again the knowing in Hazel’s eyes: Do we grow into it? Are we born with it? How have we come to be the ones who see and feel and know what others don’t, or can’t, or won’t?
I still wonder about that at times. And when I do, I close my eyes and see Hazel’s eyes, now closed too, looking at the ocean. And then I am at peace.