live like lilies

My bedside table tells a story of unrealized ambitions. At night, ascending the stairs carrying the books and articles to read. Notecards and envelopes for the letters to be written. A bit of sewing to be done. All of it piled on the table, which accepts the stuff of my intentions without comment, before I ready myself for bed. By morning the pile remains largely untouched; the spirit having flagged, the body having succumbed to the soft siren call of sleep. 

But again, the next night, I add a thing or two to the pile, which taunts as it grows: A constant reminder of the distance between my aspirations and my capacities. 

After the party winds down, I pick up my friend and we head to the place we always go. It is crowded this late at night, but we find two seats at the bar and squeeze in. She is chatty and exuberant. She tells me about the wedding she went to. She shows me photos. Points out her friends, their relatives. 

In the time since I have seen her last, she has spent a weekend with her on-again, off-again love. “I’m pretty sure he’s been seeing someone else,” she says. In the morning, before he’s awake, she slips out to bring breakfast back to him. He sends her messages while she is out. “When are you coming back?” and “I am waiting for you” and “Come back come back come back.”

Afterwards, she asks him, “Have you met someone?” while she is packing up her things to leave.  He says: “There is a time and a place to talk about this,” as he kisses her on the head. 

I am carrying a bag of groceries from my car when something on the lawn catches my eye. It is what is left of a small gray bird, a bit of blood around where the head has been removed. Poor bird, dear little bird. I want to stroke its feathers with my fingers. I want to wrap its little bird body in a doll’s blanket, lay it to rest beneath a tree. 

We drive to school in the morning, but I am distracted. I am late and the traffic patterns have been altered again. From the backseat, my son chirps happily, evenly reciting the important news of his morning: “The red ninja has fire power. The white ninja has ice power. The green ninja has grass power. The blue ninja has sky power." 

As I idle on the bridge, the turn signal clicking, I think about asking him what grass power is, but his voice is so soft and so sweet, I let him go on uninterrupted until we pull up to the school building. 

I put the car in park and pull the brake. He takes that as his cue to unbuckle his seat belt and pop his head between the front seats so that I will kiss him on the cheek, and so I do.

I come around to his side of the car, open the door. I hold his backpack for him as he steps down to the sidewalk. I slip it over his narrow shoulders and in a moment he is gone, bounding down the concrete steps to the entrance, waving his hand up at me without turning around. 

We are all a bit tense, although we try to be cheerful. The school year winding down, another series of transitions. My daughter is about to leave for the summer, to spend it with B. as she has every year since the divorce and there is an anticipatory sadness that permeates these last days of spring. It is invariably a busy time - school field trips and performances and final projects. A flurry of activity such that these days pass by in a dizzying blur and then she too is gone and we are left here, our arms still reaching out after her, still mouthing our goodbyes. How is it that even after all these years, we are so unprepared for this?

Last spring, work took me to DC a couple times and when it did, I would catch up with T. She shares her life with a man whose work keeps him on another continent much of the time. Sometimes, she will join him there for a week or two, but mostly, they live this distant life of visits between long stretches of separation. He became seriously ill a while back. It was not always clear that he would make it. 

“And I thought that maybe,” she says, “if he came out of this, he would want to make some decisions, set some priorities about our life together.” We are sitting in the restaurant of my hotel. White plates of eggs and toast in front of us. 

“I thought maybe he would decide to stay.”

We see a colleague near the entrance to the restaurant. He is heading toward us, so she says quickly, “But do you know that as soon as he was cleared to travel, he was back on a plane the next day?”

This, from Mosley’s Impossible Object, in the story called “A Hummingbird.” The narrator, married for several decades, has returned to his wife from a short trip alone, during which he considered an affair with a young woman he meets, but he did not act on it. 

That night when we went to our bedroom there was the impression we were strangers; that I had gone with my Arab girl to one of those caves behind the courtyard, my wife young again and golden; the full body and bright boy’s face and myself a visitor from a northern country; strapping on my equipment in the dusty street and going to do violence under a lamp-post. She lay on the bed with the openness of women who trust in their bodies; who are painted nude and stare down at themselves with repletion, one hand on a thigh and the other trailing and the body compact as bread. I thought - She wants me to hurt her. I took off my clothes. There was guilt fluttering behind her eyes and mouth. I touched her gently and she watched me and then stretched up to me. She seldom did this. I thought - There is nothing to be ashamed of here; there is perhaps no love without power. 

Afterwards I thought - You let the day take care of itself; live like lilies. 

In the morning, there was breakfast in the dining room above the white rubble and sand-dunes. When the sea had come it it had pushed over the stones and withdrawn satisfied. 

It is still so dark when I wake the first time and I lie in bed staring up at the blades of the ceiling fan until I am nearly certain I can see them starting to spin. I close my eyes. Open them, the blades are still. Close them again, and when I open them, the blades are spinning. I play this game with myself for several minutes before I turn over on my side and drift back to sleep. 

Rilke says: “Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.” He says, “Live the questions now.” And I suppose that is fine and good and true. But living the questions, loving them does not offer much comfort as I watch my daughter pack her things to leave. Or as M.’s mother cries softly over the phone, her body in near-constant pain. Or as I lie awake in the dark, blinking up the ceiling, pulling the day’s anxieties up over me like the blanket that lay rumpled at the foot of my bed. 

I think of my little gray bird left to die on the wet grass on a morning that was like any other until it was not. 

This morning, a white mist hangs over the city. I drive through this milky fog to the place where I will ride the bicycle going nowhere. There are five television screens mounted from the ceiling in different parts of the cavernous room. The early morning news shows are on in all their garishness. In all their frenetic cuts and edits. Occasionally, I will watch the one closest to me. Without the sound cues, it is a visual cacaphony. The images pile up one on top of the other. Two men in suits sit behind a desk, talking. A wide shot of a basketball court. A crowd of people pointing up at a gray, threatening sky. A battlefield in a faraway country. A woman holding her baby, crying. A mugshot of a man with long, stringy gray hair, wearing a black sweatshirt. There is no sense of order to any of it, just one image after the other, relentless. 

There is no good way to end this. Or to end anything, I suppose. You just keep going until the moment that you do not.