Gazing out the window at grape leaves, a writer reflects on their beauty, and on the relation of the recent crises of his life to nature. The effortless creativity of nature and its freedom from guilt contrasts with the artifice of his writing and with his experiences of shame and fear. As he contemplates his natural surroundings, he is beginning to sort through the memories of his divorce, trying to make sense of his feelings of pain and love. He is also contemplating his own activity as a writer, drawing the reader into the processes of capturing the images of life on a leaf of paper:thank you very much
A blue jay lights on a twig outside my window. Momentarily sturdy, he stands astraddle, his dingy rump toward me, his head alertly frozen in silhouette, the predatory curve of his beak stamped on a sky almost white above the misting tawny marsh. See him? I do, and, snapping the chain of my thought, I have reached through glass and seized him and stamped him on this page. Now he is gone. And yet, there, a few lines above, he still is, “astraddle,” his rump “dingy,” his head “alertly frozen.” A curious trick, possibly useless, but mine.
The writer of this passage continues to enter in and out of descriptions of the natural beauty around him, drawn back from entering fully into its profusion by images of his wife's departure. Sunlight playing through the grape leaves casts shadows in menacing shapes, yet the intricacy of the colors and patterns among the leaves suggests innocence, shelter, and openness as well. Drawn outward to the embracing leaves of surrounding trees, he is suddenly cast back inward to his sorrow.
Others have told him that he acted badly, but he is yet unable to feel the appropriate guilt. He is trapped between his inability to organize the events and tuck them safely into the past, and his inability to leap forward into his unforeseen future. When his wife left to get the divorce, the familiar patterns of their existence—searching for car keys, calling the baby-sitter—were broken along with their love. Driving along the familiar tree-lined streets became an act of moving back through the events of their life together, reinterpreting them in the light of their divorce. Meeting Helen in Boston, he sees her in her dual aspect of remembered “wife-to-be” and current ex-wife. He feels the darkness within him burst out and drown their love, and feels as if that world is now gone forever. “The natural world, where our love had existed, ceased to exist. My heart shied back; it shies back still. I retreated.” Now he waits fearfully for each new stab of pain brought by letter or phone. Hidden away in a cottage to write, he discovers that he is unable to escape the past and sink into nature. The pages that he writes are no more able to join him and his guilt to nature than the dead leaves he has tracked into the cottage have the power to evoke the beauty of the living sunlit leaves.
However, for the first time in a while, he is really able to see a low hill in the distance. Gazing at the lawn strewn with the fallen leaves of an elm, he recalls his first night at the cottage when he had gone to sleep reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), certain that he was leaving his old life behind.
And my sleep was a loop, so that in awaking I seemed still in the book, and the light-struck sky quivering through the stripped branches of the young elm seemed another page of Whitman, and I was entirely open, and lost, like a woman in passion, and free, and in love, without a shadow in any corner of my being.
After this awakening, he still must return home, but for him the shadows on the leaves have shifted with the changing light. “I imagine warmth leaning against the door, and open the door to let it in; sunlight falls flat at my feet like a penitent.”