Recently I happened upon a shallow pool covered with aster and chrysanthemum blossoms. Someone must have picked or cut the flowers to float them dream-like on the still, dark water. There were a few fallen maple leaves drifting in the mix testifying to the imminent arrival of autumn. I thought to myself, “So beautiful above but I wonder what lies beneath?”
Autumn is my favorite season: the heat and humidity of summer are gone and in their stead, there are warm, drowsy afternoons and open-window nights. There are holidays to anticipate: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas; Downrigging Weekend is around the corner; the fire pit is waiting in front of the porch to welcome and warm First Friday friends. Autumn is so inviting above, but we know all-to-well that a long, cold winter lies just beneath.
Up on the surface of America, if you look closely enough, you can see a few asters and chrysanthemums floating on the water. The stock market keeps going up (although too few people benefit from it) and unemployment keeps going down (although wages remain largely stagnant). Last week, a selfless and kind-hearted Cajun Navy steamed into battered North Carolina to ease the massive suffering caused by Hurricane Florence. The Red Sox are the winningest team in baseball. But poke a stick beneath the surface and you won’t have to go very deep to find a nasty Supreme Court nomination battle, cantankerous mid-term elections, an opioid crisis, crumbling infrastructure, a continental divide over knees and Nikes, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and an ocean of angst caused by a chaotic administration and a broken political system that would leave our Founding Fathers and Mothers dazed and confused. Just like my quiet, little pond in the woods: beauty above, muck below.
I have a friend who won’t go swimming in the ocean because he’s afraid of sharks. He loves the beach, he loves to fish, but he won’t put his toe in the water because he’s afraid of what lies beneath. I understand this. Sharks are scary creatures but statisticians and oddsmakers put your chances of being killed in a shark attack at 1,347,067 to 1. (The odds of being killed in an automobile accident are 84 to 1, but my friend drives his car anyway.) I guess the point is that the things we can’t fathom, all those things that lurk beneath the surface, are writ so large in our imagination that we often fail to appreciate all the colorful flowers that might be floating on top of the water.
I doubt any of this surprises anyone. It’s not uncommon to be afraid of the deep and the dark. When I was a child, I was convinced that an alligator lived under my bed and if—heaven forbid!—I had to get up in the night, it took uncommon courage to make that impossibly long leap across the room. Even when I had my father inspect what lay beneath my bed before I went to sleep, I was dubious when he said that nothing was lying in wait for my little feet. But that was then; this is now. I’m a grownup. There’s nothing under the bed, silly.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.