for Deb, Leon and James

I awoke this morning to the soft silence of green shade in the room where my brother lived and died, on the farm where Deb and I will harvest early potatoes today and where—except for the beauty of this place and the blessed quiet I so longed for in the clamorous San Francisco Bay Area—nothing is quite going as expected.

The place in the woods I had planned to call “home” for the next two months, just up the hill from here, went into Covid quarantine exactly the day I arrived! It was a perfect metaphor for the world right now—whatever your well-laid plan, be ready for it not to work! Right under our noses the whole scene shifts. Today, nothing is as it was yesterday or will be tomorrow, so I have to expect the unexpected— and why ever not?

I have to take a breath, a step back, re-balance and change direction. Be quick, be accurate … and nobody ever said it would be easy.

But I believe I am in the right place, breathing in this familiar air, my eyes resting in shades of green and my mind relaxing into a soundscape free of airplanes and noisy freeways with trucks shifting gears and dogs barking wildly from fenced-in yards. The city is far away and my muscles slowly relax into the summer soundscape here: a woodpecker drilling the tree-limb right outside my window, Deb in the kitchen sorting through the newly-dug potatoes.

Change. Right here in this room my brother studied the stars, wishing to understand what the ancient Egyptians knew. His telescope still stands by the window, his bookshelves still filled with translations of early Egyptian texts, and his notes collected over decades. I can feel him in here, right there at his desk still pondering the mystery—just like me.

“We’re doing this together, Leon,” I whisper to him. “I’d love to know what you are seeing now!”

He was a farmer, a musician and a scholar on his own terms, living the country life out in the boondocks: a man of the earth in summer who farmed land he shared with other war resistors during the Vietnam war, providing food for family and community, and a deep scholar of the Mysteries when the land froze and the days grew short. I am here in his walls and amongst his things in this old farmhouse, breathing his air and missing him, my baby brother gone before me.

This is a tribute to him, my brother Leon Cooper, to his Deb and his son James, to his place in the world in the forests and meadows of the North woods with the night sky above rich with other worlds in the infinite universe that we tend to recall only when darkness falls onto our ground and the silences spread above us.

Last night the coyotes howled in the hills above the farm and this morning the air is waiting. No airplane breaks this silence, and the night creatures have returned to their lairs. The harvest is coming in and we are putting it by for the long winter: peaches and cider; tomatoes and potatoes; carrots and winter squash. The onions and the corn are drying in baskets and the grapes ripening on the vines by the pond.

We imagine Leon striding across the belt of Orion now, at last getting to see what he sought all those years, hearing the tones he listened so closely for all those years he watched from below. We dig in this earth he knew intimately, walk his paths in these woods, still laugh at his jokes.

Breathe in his air. And even as the earth wobbles on its axis and we humans desperately try to learn how to up our game and balance in new ways with one another, we find ourselves grateful for the small things: the smell of freshly turned earth; the darkening clouds that just might indicate rain; the taste of a freshly picked raspberry; the sound of Deb singing in the kitchen as she washes earth off the beets we just pulled up to make a borscht for supper.

Right now, here I am. Soon, I will figure out what comes next—where to be, with whom to live, what to do with my life. For now, though, I feel like a seed waiting to mature into a flower that knows what shape and color it is designed to be, and what pollinators it is designed to attract. I have got my part to play in this time of great change and I tremble with fear and also with great hope, and my task, I believe, is to ripen into knowledge of what that part is.

It is time, I believe, to go very quiet and listen for my particular note in the ensemble of the new music shifting into a new key of the world, very like the butterfly getting ready to struggle out of its cocoon so it can take to the air and fly above the ground.

For that, I need quiet, some family, a rooting in the earth and unscheduled time to go deep.

Silence… Earth… Prayer…

Gratitude for it all.