Steve Massart

An Accumulation of Energy

It rarely rains in one of the driest places on Earth. Chile’s Atacama Desert receives little more than half an inch of rain a year, although some weather stations there have never captured a single drop. Small sand-colored grasshoppers, beetles, and scorpions endure among the parched pebbles, but this extreme and inhospitable land is unable to nourish much life beyond this save for the miniscule Darwin’s mouse, the skittish guanaco and vicuna, and the elusive South American gray fox.

No, It doesn’t rain much in this desert. But, when it does—when the ground is nourished by the gift of rain—it explodes with life and becomes the “Desierto Florido,” the flowering desert. Seeds that have been hibernating for five or more years burst forth in vast swaths of whites and yellows and reds and purples. Water droplets—having freed themselves from the endlessness of the ocean’s surface, having climbed up into the clouds where they gathered and waited, where they rose and then fell on their journey to become the fuel for this floral snowfall, this land-bound sunset, this wondrous respite from endless aridity—yes, even the raindrops know that what doesn’t get nourished cannot bloom.

There is a seemingly impossible and beautifully defiant inseparability at play here. Heat and water and gravity forming an interdependent circulatory system that sustains life. The desert could not otherwise bloom.

But we persist in the attempts to unravel things, though, don’t we? We distill and dissect the component parts from one another, hoping to arrive at the essential truth of a thing. We feel the pull of some elusive purity that we feel might come when we can hold the individual parts in our hands and name them one-by-one. Sometimes, though, what we are faced with is an intimacy that cannot be unraveled—a composition too complex to be unwound.

A bee flies even when physics says it shouldn’t. So be it. Don’t try to unravel what cannot be; if you do, then you will deny their ability to fly even while you are watching them flit from bloom to bloom which will become your food, or perhaps one day, a forest.

Last week, a few hours after burying my mother, my family and I visited the trailer court where she and my dad raised my sister and me. I’d heard that it had fallen into disrepair, but I was shocked by just how much. It had been an idyllic place to grow up. Surrounded by cow pastures and woods, bisected by a creek and filled with semi-feral kids, this insular little place was the center of the solar system. Believe Copernicus if you’d like, but Fleming’s Trailer Court—and not the Sun—was the true center of everything. It’s where we played and fought, had our first crushes and our first kisses, bled, healed, imagined, grew, and dreamed. Whatever adventures life held in store for us, were given birth here.

Now, fifty years along, it seems nothing more than a model of decay—an experiment in atrophy and entropy. But I have to believe that it had given itself to us trailer court kids who no one held in much esteem. See, the richness of life around us protected us from the fact that we were closer to poverty than we realized. Not that we were destitute because even the poorest among us always had food on the table. It was a poverty of expectation we were born into—and because others didn’t believe these unruly and unkempt kids were capable of much, we very easily could have started to believe in that lie as well.

I have to believe that the reason the trailer court is in such disrepair is that, just like a mother, it gave of itself to us. After nurturing us in its womb for all those years and all those endless summers, its decay continued to sustain our defiant ambitions.

Science reminds us that energy cannot ever truly be lost. The decaying trailers, the piles of concrete rubble that used to be our front porches, the picnic pavilion that is nothing more than a few sagging metal posts, are so derelict because their energy transferred somewhere. No, not just somewhere, it had to transfer to us. Those wide-eyed kids who thought a double-wide meant wealth, who wore filthiness like armor and skinned knees like medals—we became loving mothers and fathers and engineers and executive assistants and business owners and yoga instructors and somehow even teachers and professors. This cannot be by accident.

My mom’s heart gave out. She’d struggled for years with her health, but she had recently been doing much better. She seemed more positive, less plagued by her health issues; she just simply seemed more alive.

And then, she wasn’t.

None of us expected that phone call. But, somehow, we all expected the thank you notes she’d sent the day she died, and that arrived in our mailboxes a few days later. She said she was looking forward to a trip out west to visit. Instead, we flew east to say our final goodbyes.

We’re touched too deeply and too often to be able to disassociate moments and memories from the truth of what they have amounted to. Look into me and you’ll see that their fingerprints are everywhere—their DNA becomes mine: Mom, the trailer court, me. The raindrop falls and gives of itself to the beetle or the scorpion or the seed and somehow becomes something more than it once was.

Energy can only be exchanged and changed, but never, ever lost. We can really only borrow energy, but we borrow it from everyone we meet, and from everyone we love, and from every place that means something to us. What we choose to do with this energy defines not only us, but those around us.

The other night the kids and I were wrestling way too close to bedtime. My youngest daughter had a plastic necklace my mother had given her for her birthday a few years back. She was swinging it around her head like a lasso, and, before launching her attack on her brother and me yelled, “Grandma Judy power!” Go ahead and use complicated equations to calculate the scientific principle of the conservation of energy, but I dare you to find more definitive proof of my mother’s energy than my daughter and her battle cry.

Remember. Remember today and tomorrow and in the darkest of your future days, that we are an accumulation of energy gifted to us, and that this is a circulatory system that will never, ever fail.

So, you see, nothing ever dies. Not really. Not the trailer court, not the flowers in the driest of deserts, not even Mom. Because our heartbeats pick up where hers left off.

Steve Massart teaches high school and college in Vanvouver, WA. He is quite fond of his amazing wife, feral children, splitting wood, and goats.