Down in the low-lying area of our farm, near the chestnut tree we only discovered a few years ago, when we finally cut through the brush, the blackberry brambles are higher than my head. Something about the timing of the rain and the heat this year ensured that the blackberries would come in early, voluptuous and huge. As I was mowing and harvesting onions, I kept glancing at them and thinking I should really pick some. But blackberry-picking always falls to the end of the long list of things I have to do each day.
But last week I discovered that my youngest child, a picky eater who disdains blueberries, strawberries, and cherries, actually likes these dark, tart, wild fruits. With his two older siblings away at camp, I wanted to do something special just with him, so we set out with a plastic tub and filled it with berries. I let him pick the low-hanging ones, down beneath the overhanging brambles, while I waded on in, in cut-offs and rubber boots, same as I’ve been doing since I was too little to remember.
Picking blackberries is about not minding the cuts from the thorns, and being willing to stomp on in even if it means getting scratched up. It means risking poison ivy, sweating in the sun, in order to reach in for those biggest, most elusive berries, always almost beyond your grasp. You have to enjoy getting dirty, fingers stained, hair snarled. You can’t do this and like it if you fear the touch of the earth. And the berries themselves are more robust than the fragile black raspberries of a few weeks earlier, with sharper flavors, varying from thin and tart to the way you think “wine” must taste, when you’re a kid reading Song of Songs and thinking of kisses like wine.
It’d been years since we’d had a proper blackberry harvest, I realized, because when I plucked one and popped it into my mouth the taste did that thing that some tastes do – the thing Proust uses to open up his gargantuan In Search of Lost Time with the single experience of biting into a tea-dipped madeleine. One minute you’re here and now. The next minute you are transported. There’s a whole novel to be made of this, a thousand pages of it, including all the things you never told, even the things you didn’t remember until now.
Time, in the middle years, begins to do strange things and run too quickly. I look at my children, sometimes, and think – wait, I’m their mother? How did that happen? I look at myself in the mirror and am not sure who owns that tired frowning face.And when all around you the world seems to be dipping further into madness, ruled by fools and petty villains and bad liars, this hurtling-forward of time seems especially unfair. When I realized that I’d have to reach the second half of my forties before I could reasonably look forward to not having Trump in power, I felt especially cheated, as though my final chance to lounge and loaf in the waning waters of youth had been stolen from me. It’s pretty hard not to be an angry old woman, when there’s so much to be justly angry about. And yet people keep acting as though it’s actually less insane to SMILE and STAY UPBEAT.
I’m reminded of Chesterton’s lunatics. So many of them were incurably optimistic about the stupidest things. The ones who seem insane – who stand on their heads, to see things upright, and set off around the world to find home again – are the sane ones.
Standing in the middle of a briar patch with my fingers royally purple, a thin line of blood across my thigh, I am here in this summer with my small son behind me, industriously inspecting each berry to be sure it’s perfect, but I am also back then, 17 years old, taking my camper group on an epic saunter, picking berries by the gallon while all around us the dragonflies dip in the sun. I remember telling them the plot of The Lord of The Rings (Peter Jackson hadn’t yet handed on a mangled version to the popular imagination). Later we’d make a berry cobbler and eat it by night when we were supposed to be sleeping. That’s the same camp my kids are at now. I must have made a Chestertonian circuit somewhere along the line.
Of course, back then I was also convinced that my youth was over, and everything was lost. Maybe we always feel that way. Time is, we know from philosophy, theology, and physics, something of an illusion. This is both a terror and a comfort. The fools and liars will always be with us. The fools and liars will always be gone. The suffering children will always be in cages. And always be free. Because the first is true, we can never cease fighting for justice. Because the second is true, maybe it’s okay for us also to hope.
The child with golden hair wandering in the sunlight flickers and becomes an old man, bent with memory, then flickers back again. The middle aged woman standing in rubber boots eating berries like eucharist spreads her wings and flies. But only for a moment: earth summons us back to responsibility, a thin line of blood on the skin.
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