These are strange days we are living; corruption and danger appear in so many forms and fronts that it is nearly impossible to make sense of it all, let alone find the way to act in meaningful and effective ways. Yet we go on living, and for some of us —for sure the most privileged— life is still full of delights and wonder.
It was a warm and bright evening on the shore of Cayuga lake, right by the Taughannock creek inlet, a perfect day and time for a swim, but that was not to be, not this evening. The first thing we noticed as we walked into the beach area was park personnel putting up signs stating that, due to an unprecedented toxic algae bloom, we were advised not to go into the water. In the previous weeks, we had had an unusual amount of rain that had in turn precipitated an unprecedented run-off of fertilizer from agricultural fields down to the lake.
We were at Taughannock park for a picnic with a fairly large group of friends, and there was some discussion (far more scientific than heartfelt) about what was the probable cause of the bloom. Its connection with global climate disruption (the high volume of rain) and longstanding farming practices and consumer expectations had not even come up when the usual dynamics of a social gathering with good and abundant food and drink changed the topic of conversation to something more palatable. I am well aware of a general reluctance to discuss these thorny problems at length, but I felt that given the stridency of the particular symptoms confronting us this evening, the eagerness to scuttle adult talk was almost surreal.
Eventually Kim and I said our good-byes, but before we left the park we took a little walk up the beach at a certain distance from one another, and that was when I saw my friend Sue standing among a different group of people. I had not seen her for a long time, and I was thinking that she looked somewhat different, more ebullient, happier than I had ever seen her before, when a woman walked over to her and handed her a baby who took to her arms in a way that made evident she was the mother. A second later, I realized that that the man next to her had to be the baby's father to be that endearing with both of them. I walked over to greet them, and Sue introduced me to David, her husband, and to Avi, their seriously charming five-months old child. I took a few hurried pictures of them, collected an address to email them the images, and we were off.
As it turned out I inadvertently deleted these pictures, so when I wrote to Sue and David a couple of days later it was to tell them about the loss, and to invite them to come to our place for a formal family portrait. The session happened a few days later, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience for me, despite the fact that I was having some trouble with my vision, and that this kind of photography is far from my usual fare. All three of them were natural, easy going, and creative subjects, (especially Avi, I must say). Being scrutinized by my curiosity half-hidden behind a lens seemed no big deal to them. Kim was her usual charming host and a great help in finding the best spots and light conditions to shoot as we moved around our yard and garden with me taking an inordinate number of photographs. I also had the privilege of holding a very serious, but never fretting baby Avi in my arms for a few minutes (as did Kim), what a rare treat.
What was most extraordinary about this experience, though, was to be first row witnesses to a very special instance of the fundamental human affection that deepens the connection between a man and a woman to welcome a new child into the world. Since I am including below some pictorial evidence of the very intimate connection among David, Sue, and Avi, I do not need to write further about its character, you can see for yourselves. I will say, though, that I woke up next morning with a great sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to so closely witness this particular instance of the timeless spring that sustains human life across time and space. It was easy for me to take solace by imagining similar instances of this same love occurring all over the world and in the most dissimilar circumstances. However, this vision was almost immediately tempered by the also readily accessible specter of the damage done to the fragile psyches of so many newcomers to this world when this fundamental parental affection is incomplete or severely impaired.
About a week later, Sue and Avi (David was at work) came back to our place armed with the external drive needed to collect the images that I had by then been able to process. We sat around the table in our dining room and talked about life, while Avi displayed his ability to entertain himself cooing and doing vigorous baby calisthenics. I was quickly reminded that my initial connection with Sue, many years ago, was around our shared interest in social affairs and a common experience in international human and economic development. She had spent some time in Africa doing development with the Peace Corps, and I had worked in the same field for many years in several Latin American countries and with three different organizations, one of them the Peace Corps. At the time we met, sometime in the early nineties, she was working with The Learning Web, an Ithaca youth service outreach program helping young people become adults. Both her and David are now teachers working in the same high-school.
Our conversation had easily found its way to current social, economic, military, and ecological situation of the world, when Avi gave some secret indication of his need for nourishment, and Sue asked us if we were allright with her feeding him right there and then. Kim and I quickly assented, and a second later saw Avi perform that brusque, yet uncannily knowing gesture with which a newborn finds and latches on to a generous nipple. We were again witnessing a primal event that makes plain the common nature of our shared existence. Our conversation continued, but now the current situations of injustice, war, and ecological devastation to which we referred appeared all the more unnatural and unintelligent, precisely because Avi's avid suckling at his mother's breast was so emblematic of a shared humanity betrayed by all that is divisive and cruel in the world.
When Avi had drunk his fill, Sue placed him on a white baby blanket that Kim had placed on the floor (a blanket that had belonged to her daughter Anna, soon to be thirty years old!) with his face looking away from her and towards us. The nourishment had obviously given the little guy a great energy boost, because his babbling was now louder and more varied, and his calisthenics all the more vigorous. What made the scene unfolding at our feet extraordinarily moving was the way in which Avi's eyes would search back looking for his mother’s to then explode with joy --eyes glowing, and legs and arms shooting straight out-- when he managed to connect with her, who responded to his excited recognition with a calm, radiant tenderness.
Yes, it is true that we have made a mess of much of the life entrusted to us, and yet to eyes willing to see everything there is to see, and hearts open to feel all there is to feel, the sacred still sees fit to reveal itself without prior notice.
The day before the photo shoot with David, Avi, and Sue, the wren couple left the little wooden house in our garden where their chicks had hatched and then grown so large that their parents had to stand outside to feed them.
The day after the shoot I had my eyes examined, and learned of the better-sooner-than-later need to undergo surgery to take care of a cataract growing in my left eye.
Live goes on full of horror and beauty, of kindness and cruelty and I, for one, am certain that our mysterious presence in it demands that we see it accurately, and in its entirety so that our action may guided by the only complete truth there is: love.
If you happen to run into David, Sue, and Avi, go say hi to them. They are a sweet bunch.