In a thousand ways

You are audience. You are appreciator of appreciation. I talk with you when I go on my walks alone. You are a spur to metaphors. With you listening, I see twisting streamers of starlings, a heavy-lidded sun, and straw bells with clappers of snow.

You seldom answer me outright. Instead you respond in your own crisp calligraphy. I show you river ice patched like sycamore bark. You respond with red-brown stripes of saplings poking out of a snow slope. I wonder what animal left such delicate prints in the snow. You show me an eagle shifting on drafts above the river. Your listening translates words into habits of vision.

Today, I was sledding sledless in deepest snow. As i struggled back up the hill, I tried out a new analogy. Learning to love, I said, is like making bread. (Your quiet teaches me to hear new metaphors rustling in the wings of consciousness.) Learning to love, I continued, is both an ancient lesson and a new challenge. It is as old as making bread and as new as each fresh loaf. Even if I am making bread for the twentieth year, each time I make it I am experimenting in an ancient rite. Just so for me, learning to love is and what it demands is both new and old.

I stop sledding and begin to push on where we can study trails of bittersweet and a downy woodpecker tattooing bark. Intent as I am with unresolved questions , your silence presses me on. Your listening itself extends my metaphor.

Take, for instance, my grandmother. Like you, she is a listener. Say I have made a new discovery about love -- that love is a window through which I look out and others look into my hopes. So I come to tell her. Now, my grandmother has made families for the tired and lonely, for babies hastily dropped in wartime day-care centers, for second cousins and soldiers come to dinner the first time. She will make daughters of anyone who wants to learn to crochet, talk about poetry, make milk gravy, tend a rosebush, laugh at Little Orphan Annie -- and even some who do not. What more could she learn about love from me?

But when she tastes of my fresh loaf of love that I have just now baked, she will say, "Better than any I have tasted in a long time." Because she is fond of the new staste and the old reminder of this discovery. Even though in her lap of memories is just exactly such a love as I am only now discovering, she will hear me out. The memory may be as seasoned as her father's big rocking chair where she sits or as recent as this record of Aaron Copland songs, just out of its cellophane, playing on her phonograph.

At the corner of the table, at some special occasion when all of us have come back home, she sits smiling.She laughs when we laugh. What we are laughing at is as unfamiliar to her as are our apartments in Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, our jobs as planners, engineers, researchers. But as we talk, she will find in each story some snowflake of familiarity. She will hold it to the light and in her eyes it is a prism, a kaleidoscope. Our bits of new worlds fold into patterns she remembers -- a dissertation defense becomes her own painful recitations nearly a century ago in her eighth-grade German class. Our marathon ride across the United States becomes her family's slow trip -- leaving Chicago forever, coming to be Yankees in Tupelo, Mississippi.

She is a listener whose memories gather new worlds to her. Instead of using those memories to screen surprises from her life, she uses them as amplifiers. So when new loaves of love meet an ancient taste for love, the celebration is a feast of surprise and familiarity.

No, You would have no trouble "relating" -- as they say -- to my grandmother. Your silences would amplify each other.

As if to nod in agreement, you show me a tissue paper leaf, transparent with ice, pinned to the snow's collar. The leaf curves gently to embrace the snow. I climb back up the last bank toward my home. There I'll hang my snow-stiff jeans and socks. As I finish this walk, I ask myself, is the leaf you metaphor for love?

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