When I hiked across England the wind was so strong that it would sometimes flatten me into the soft grasses. My backpack caught gusts like a sail and without my walking stick, my other limb, I would have gone down many more times than I did. The precarious stream crossings on steep hillsides in blustery wind highlighted the stability and balance of my valued companion, one who walked every step of the two hundred miles with me. Eight miles before the end of the hike my knee gave out and it was only by putting my full weight on the stick that I could continue. From my first steps along the grassy headlands over the Irish Sea to my last tentative steps in the pitch blackness on a trail along the top of the bluffs of Robin Hood’s Bay while invisible waves crashed below, this friendly presence walked at my side.
The stick was about my height, with a jog towards the top where a branch broke off and most of the bark peeled off. I could hook my thumb over the curve for a better grip. After I washed my one bandana I tied it to the top of the stick to dry where it flew straight out like a flag. Not that things dried really; they just achieved a lesser state of dampness, dry in a relative sense in the landscapes of misty lakes and dales and moors. It was on these hills that I first encountered the tarn, a small circular body of water like a coin of sky dropped from above, without outlets or inlets, self contained and unexpected and serene.
When the wind did blow me down the surprising part was how much less windy it was on the ground, especially if I curled up with my pack over me, as I did on one particularly windy peak where I could hardly track the cloud formations with my eyes as they raced across the sky. Protected like a turtle, I ate my hiker’s bar that I bought in the village far below, a concoction of oats soaked in butter and sugar that restored life to my bones and remains one of the best snacks in my memory.
I was talking about these companions with my roommate the other night, these Friendly Presences, objects that help me, every day, in humble and menial ways. I mean, a walking stick just stumps along the ground. No glory there. The plastic dish basin at school is constantly at my fingertips because with this basin we wash our dishes and our hands, I bathe muddy children, collect items, disperse them, soak the feet of tired children in lavender water, soak thick paper for painting, wash paint jars and brushes, collect compost, and deliver things. They are a lot like buckets, which I also have a fondness for.
The basins are in constant rotation and recently one appeared in my house along with my roommate who the other night pointed at the dish basin on the rack and said, “What do you think about that?” at which point I launched into a discourse on the nature of Things as Friendly Presences in my life, much of which is transcribed here, a narrative she was probably not expecting when she pointed at the basin and said, “What do you think of that?”
It is no wonder the Germans capitalize their nouns.
I traveled one summer to fourteen beaches of Puerto Rico with a friend who lived only with Unfriendly Presences. She had a very difficult time, always hitting her knee, or unable to turn spigots on or off.
At the time of her question my roommate was framed in her doorway into the kitchen. The kitchen itself was dim, the lamp on the table illuminating the muted green walls, whereas the yellow walls of her room were fully lit and saturated the doorway around her in golden light. Her hair swept to one side and her silk skirt did too, its hem cut dramatically at a slant. “So I should get rid of it? It’s a crutch?” she said, after I had concluded my meditation on the dish basin.
I was going to argue that these things are not crutches, my walking stick was no crutch, but then I realized that a crutch also might seem like a Friendly Presence, one to be relied on. Once I was on crutches and I did not like them, they hurt, and they were ugly. Neither form nor function succeeded, and they did not meet.
I thought that my roommate in the golden doorway amidst the soft green walls and forms of door and tile and floorboard looked like a Rembrandt, and I told her so, but really I meant Vermeer. Nonetheless it was a Life as Art moment, the whole scene, accented with the one red string of charms that hang in the corner for luck and chi circulation.
The scene contained the qualities of both unreality as well as sharpness and clarity, and perfect composition, though I couldn’t say why. “What is the purpose of painters? What is it that they have to say in the world?” my painter friend writes to me. I still don’t have an answer for her but when I do it will be related to the living painting I saw, a transcendence of the everyday which is not metamorphosis but an unveiling of essence.