Tuesday, July 28, 2020


During coffee this morning we spotted a squirrel at the end of the yard fooling around on a downed tree branch. At first I was afraid he was sick—a couple of summers ago we'd watched a raccoon "frolicking" under an arbor vitae; he stayed there all day, finally wandering in small, aimless circles, clearly deranged from rabies or poison—but soon enough the squirrel appeared to be playing. He flopped on his back, did flips and chin-ups on the branch, scaled its length, dashed beneath the arc like a show dog, and generally had a blast. Was it the novelty of a branch on the ground? He didn't seem to be accomplishing much of anything, just enjoying himself without purpose, hurtling through the air and rolling around, like a kid at the beach. After a few minutes of recess, the bell rang and up the nearby locust tree he shot, punched in, and was back at work squirreling away.

In an undergraduate poetry workshop with the late Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland, a student next to me ventured writing a poem about a squirrel. Plumly, in his self-assured way, discouraged him, claiming that it was impossible to write a good poem about a creature as ubiquitous and easily sentimentalized as a squirrel. (As I recall, he mentioned Richard Wilbur's amazing "The Death of a Toad" as an exception to this.) Plumly may have been right, but today all I know is that watching that squirrel seemingly unburdened of the fear of predatory animals, hoarding food, and the general grim business of staying alive in a cutthroat world, reminded me of the joy of being a body, of the fact that all of us are capable of playing in the world and ignoring the daily weights we carry around and grow resentful of. A poor-squirrel's jungle gym in the backyard was a welcome surprise. Having a body feels dangerous now, surrounded as we are by an invisible virus intent on exploiting that body's weaknesses, and we're taking measures to protect ourselves, in the (necessary) process depriving our bodies of some of simple physical pleasures that we crave.

We want to play. Yet it's easy to give in to nostalgia, especially these days. When we were kids fooling on the jungle gyms, slides, and swings on the playground, each of us still carried around some dark stuff, rascism, gut-wrenching tweener politics, sad and bewildering family issues, any host of problems. Maybe flying through the air on a swing or balancing precariously at the top of the climbing bars or risking a leg burn on a hot slide lifted us out of our lousy bodies for a moment, until we were returned moodily to the adolescent crises of feeling complex things before we could name them. Sentimentalized or not, that playful squirrel was a nice reminder of the pleasures of the body we take for granted, what we experience in those moments before we're back toiling in the tree, one eye on the ground below, the other over our shoulder.

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