That old man kneeling in the woods, come upon as I was walking, crouched low at a fallen tree, hands pressed together—was he okay, resting like any pilgrim might, his scant belongings bundled, eyes closed and face tilted up? I looked to be sure he was praying and hadn’t just fallen, and to see if I should help. It seemed like a loss he was addressing, for he picked the right props—downed tree, rough cane, small parcel—and added to them only himself, a beseeching presence.
But maybe he
fallen. As in “from grace.”
Sometimes, against one’s will, a oneness of meaning creeps in.
Given the choice between, say, a dozen okay chocolates and one small piece of pure Belgian dark, I’ll take the smaller, perfect thing. The brief one-time delicacy. It’s always been this way with me. I’ll eat it at once, no slow rationing-out, and then I’ll live with the fleet abundance and the longing.
But, too, I have these perfect T-shirts, so well fitting, falling just-so—a whole drawerful I took such care in collecting—that I resist wearing them for fear of using them up and then not-having.
I’m drawn to the way rust bleeds out around a razor in the rain.
And I want to pick the razor up so no kid will get hurt.
I want the stain to spread.
And I want no one to run in a mess to the doctor (for I, myself, surprise nail-in-the-foot, once had the awful tetanus shots.)
I want this perfect lost-barn tint contained in the blade’s corona every time I cross the street to stay
. (And just for fun?—one of the T-shirts I love and keep safe is the color of that rust, precisely.)
Recently, while on a walk, I found a letter in the street, handwritten, to a Mrs. G. from Mary D., a Jehovah’s Witness, suggesting another visit and scripture reading (quick, only fifteen minutes, she assures) to ease Mrs. G.’s hurt over the loss of her brother. The letter was beautiful, and ended, “I just wanted you to know that I am still out and will be happy to see you whenever you can make the time—and that’s usually what we have to do—make time because it seem time just don’t allow. Most Sincerely.” I am drawn to the handwriting, a combination of script and print, carefully laid down across plain unlined paper and comfortably sloping, the ease of language, the unselfconscious voice set so directly down on the page, an unmediated mind-to-paper move certain of its task. I wish the letter would go on; I want to hear more of this comforting voice.
But at home, I hide when the Witnesses come. I want to be left alone in my godless world. I want not to be exhorted or cajoled or handed one thing more for my own good. I am fed best by what is left behind. Detritus, loved and held, picked through. (No pure dark Belgian here.) I’d do well as a crow or a vulture, cleaning, paring, finding succulent what has been overlooked and is moldering.
The “good word,” okay.
But not to have to receive it fresh and from on high.
Today it rained for much of the afternoon. It got dark fast, let go a hard, final downpour, and now the streets are clear and sharp-smelling. The light, these long last days of summer, is low enough to jewel and yellow, blur, and now, if I tilt my head, rainbow all the drops hanging from the phone line. It’s that the colors weight the drops, slick them with fire and sea-greens in shifts.
I read for sustenance (more than my own lemon-beaded raindrops on the high-wire can give) Proust on asparagus:
. . . tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form . . .
I walk through this rain thinking, at one time I would point this all out to you in person, hold these drops on the wire against those astral stalks, iridesce the water, roll a pearly drop toward you, fray and sift asparagal light. But now you live in another city and you, in another country, and you (who have not yet even made an appearance here) and I no longer speak of such things.
But I want the shine to live. And before I know it, I am offering, tilting into the light and bringing forth . . . something:
fine beads aloft, an abacus of pearls,
say. I’m sowing some new green, but it’s for you, Reader, whom I both know and do not know, who both exist and do not exist, who constitute an elsewhere far, further than I can imagine, years, maybe centuries away.
Whose elsewhere is a balm and a comfort.
“Try Our Delicious Pizza”
There on the postcard was my husband’s name, carried along on a soft-looking jet stream, sharing the airspace with other bright-colored mechanical bits—probably called “connexions” or “connectorz” because ad-folks know to mess with the language to better appeal to kids. There in the day’s mail was his short, balanced name, spelled out with puzzlelike red/yellow/blue parts sailing along, pulled by a friendly, white, airbrushed current. Someone at the Science Center got their lists mixed up and thought he was a child. (Often, he does look like a curious, alert kid—and he
a very sweet boy, as I hear it.) In one of my favorite pictures of him, he’s around five, playing a recorder, and wearing a wrinkly, striped shirt. There’s sheet music on a stand which the others are following, but I’m sure he’s just playing by ear. It’s that his name on the card is so bright, tender, alert—if it called him, its timbre would be full of harmonies he’d have known even then, and was probably using to embellish the simple song.
It’s hard to retain such joyful playing.
When the card arrived the other day, I felt, more than anything, sadness wing in.
And on the Long Island Railroad last month, it came forth like this: the conductor handed my son a gold Souvenir Ticket and punched it ceremoniously, and my son took the ticket, smiling, knowing he was too old for such things (and he is, he’s twelve now and taller than I am) but still, he was perfectly gracious. There it was, in my son’s hands: the full understanding that others mean well but won’t always see you accurately, and what you give in return for their effort is kindness.
The sadness always surprises, hits sidelong, and then files right in. Perhaps there’s a groove constructed by years, a worn place ready to receive it. So when an occasion calls it forth, and after the initial shock of arrival, the sadness knows just where to settle.
I don’t go in search of it. Why does it find me?
And I don’t entertain it for long when it comes; I don’t
to be sad, but unbidden, it muscles in—by way of train cars stopped in the station, brimming with coal—B&O and Burlington Northern, the basic, everyday, raw-ingredient lines. I’m not inclined to fix on plaintive train whistles, or rusting small towns built too close to the tracks; I’m not even bent on recollecting Scenes of My Life in the Midwest Age Twenty (sensitive, angsty, ISO edgy landscapes, weedy tracks, soulful connections). Rather, it’s the way a coal train
as I Amtrak by, en route from Baltimore to New York. As if it’s holding just a pinch of black dust, a harmless, loamy soil. I had a miniature train set as a kid (from Germany, I’m sure, the parts were lovely, precise and clockworkish), each car the size of a jelly bean, and I could hook them up in different formations and tap the whole line into motion—gently or they’d topple over. For this I needed a smooth kitchen floor. In her time, I read, the little Czarina also had tiny trains, but with ruby headlights and sapphire windows, for amusement during long afternoons, where, on some inlaid table she, too, I imagined, set journeys going with a tap of her royal hand. (With such trains, one conjures a world by humming softly and staring into the distance, past the cars and deep into the table’s pattern—or the floor’s green and white linoleum—so there emerges an imagined friend and a story: an exile’s in process, the dark’s all around and the cold, she gets up from her seat, holding her lap dog and . . . etc.). I thought I could inoculate myself against the sadness, even then, by calling it up, turning it over in a light of my own making. Such quiet one needs to hear the smallest wheels turn! How difficult that is to come by now. And my
train-in-the-depot, with its coal fresh-blasted from the ruined mountains of West Virginia, supplier of energy for the capital’s grid—well, it returns very quickly to full size, and the wrecked towns and poisoned lakes are hitched to it, and that changes considerably how I feel about festive lights ringing the mall, the White House ablaze and the monuments glowing all night, every night of the year.
And how can a thing that’s a deathblow to sadness, itself also be a sadness? Once a perfectly balanced, strong, city poplar was busy greening and swelling its buds, ruffling its leaves, over a strung-out woman in a parking lot. It was a bright weekday afternoon and though she was stuffing baggies and needles deep into a hole in the passenger seat, the light through the trees was so gentle, so ancient it made her look like a peasant planting, bent at the waist, with thick legs and hiked skirt; it was a light that buffed the chipped curb, the crass dumpster, so that the illegality of her task seemed mild and familiar. As I walked past, I thought her form beautiful as she inclined to her paraphernalia. For a moment she was part of the finery of spring. And when I heard a low cooing from the back seat, I actually looked for a contented baby (rush basket, lace-blanket, waking into the lemony frosting of sunlight) but saw instead a man pointing at me. Moving his mouth, hunched like a puffed bird, he jabbed his finger and started to yell, then covered his face and told me to get the hell away. And I wasn’t frightened, but saddened by the way the greening, bright leaves got erased, just winched out of sight, and a delivery truck intercepted, and everything overrode the blossoming tree.