Marco Polo, Magellan, and Me
Late in the day, when the light has bloomed lavender and the audible heartbeat of the earth has faded to a quiet drone, when the heat of the day is old and settled, I walk outside to meet the dragonflies.
They are everywhere. Flashing and dipping over the Russian sage, whirling through the lantana, gliding through the balusters and around the posts of the deck. As I walk around the yard they follow me, barnstorming from above and below, twisting and diving like tiny biplanes, intent on eliciting oohs and aahs from their one-person audience.
Their colors change as they angle up and down and over. Black, then blue, then purple. Iridescent flashes that remind me of peacocks and cloisonne’ and the kind of eye shadow that only models wear.
I don’t know much about dragonflies beyond what we learned in the third grade unit on insects – head, thorax, abdomen – , but I do know that I remain as fascinated by them as I was before I knew the names of their body parts. There is a memory, faded like an old Polaroid, of standing in Grannie’s yard, holding out my arm as a landing strip, waiting for the sticky, prickly dragonfly legs to light on my sticky, sweaty skin.
That arm is soft and round and does not narrow much at the wrist where it spreads out into a child’s hand and five pudgy fingers. The other hand makes a fist and then pulls out the index finger to make a perch, easing it slowly toward the dragonfly who is tentatively rubbing his two front feet together, carefully nudging him onto the finger. He clings now, all eight legs wrapped around the finger, and I walk around the yard watching the light glisten off his wings, fluttering so rapidly they hardly seem to be moving at all.
I am P.T. Barnum. I am Dr. Dolittle. I am the man on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I have tamed something wild.
The dragonfly does not stay. Wild things never do. Not for long. He lifts, hovers, and flits off into the deep summer evening. My finger tickles just a little on the spot where he sat.
It is odd, I think as the memory falls back into memory and the present reasserts itself, that I have never seen my younger self, my child self as an explorer. If anyone asked, I would probably have said that, with the exception of Girl Scouting adventures and one week each summer at camp, I spent most of my childhood with my nose in a book, curled up in a corner of my bedroom discovering the world through words rather than experience.
But the memory of the dragonfly is making me rethink that self-portrait. Other images are appearing, breaking the surface like tired swimmers. Here! they call out. Look! they say. See this! they demand. And I do.
I see myself and Keith and the cousins tromping through the woods, sticks in our hands. I see us digging tunnels and splashing in rain-filled ditches. I see us chasing butterflies across the front yard and searching for grasshoppers among the tall grass at the edge of the pond.
I see that I have sold myself short. I have failed, not for the first time, to claim what I am, what I have always been. I am a dragonfly tamer, a memory chaser, a story finder. I am an explorer.