without

Days where one feels unstoppable – huge, bright, propelled by some unseen force – must necessarily be followed, it seems, by their opposite: small, uncertain, tentative days. Days on which the mere act of rising in the morning while it is still dark seems nearly impossible.

There is a line of a poem I remember but cannot seem to identify its source. It is something like this: There are days when it is enough to feel the bones move easily beneath the skin. Yes. I think I know these days.

So, you love a thing. Or you think you do, which is really the same as far as your heart is concerned. You love a thing (person, place, object, etc.) and then it is gone. The feelings it has engendered are not gone. Just the thing itself.

There is a man who stands across the street from my house in the mornings, waiting for the bus. The bus comes by the house at 8:07 AM. When we go out there, my son and me, to leave for school, this man is arriving at the bus stop from Wolcott. He wears a baseball cap and often he is carrying a plastic grocery store bag with him.

When I back out of the driveway, and turn my car to go down Summit Street toward Division, he is there, standing on the sidewalk, just by the passenger side door. If he wanted to, he could open the door, and get inside, this is how close he is, at that moment. He waves and smiles. I wave and smile back. And then, I put my car in gear and am on my way down the street.

This has gone on for several months now, this waving and smiling, although I cannot recall how it started. And then for a time, for many weeks over the summer, I left the house earlier so I did not see him. But now, I am back on this schedule. There does not seem to be anything menacing about this exchange and yet I find it unsettling. So much so that I have – on occasion – risked being late, risked my son being late to school – to wait out the bus. To watch from my living room window, from just behind the curtain, wait for the bus to pass, and for the spot where he stands to be empty of him – before taking my son’s hand and walking him outside. For what purpose? So that I do not have to wave and smile at this man standing on the sidewalk? So that I can free myself from the terrible burden of this tiny human exchange? Yes. I suppose so. I am not proud of this, but it is true.

This thing you love (or think you love) is gone and you carry with you the memory of it. The memory of the moments that remind you of loving it, of the pleasures it brought you. That it was there with you at important points along your life’s path. You remember other things, in fact – people, places, etc. – though the lens of loving this thing. Your days are defined not by the way you drift through them – the way your can feel your blessed bones move easily beneath the skin – but by absence. By longing. By rivers and rivers of longing.

On the flight from Korea, I was given a small thing. Someone had fashioned it from two plastic cups. A few small red stirring sticks had been placed inside and then the mouths of the cups were held together with masking tape. It made noise when you shook it – a loud, unpleasant rattle. It remained with my other things – my Korean things: the shirt, the tights, the shoes I wore here – for many years.

Plastic grows brittle, of course. Tape does not hold. I don’t remember discarding the thing, but must have, at some time, during a move from one house to another. I think about this small thing sometimes though, until it takes on magical qualities in my imagination. As though if I looked into it long enough, as if I shook it and tossed the sticks out across the table, I could read the future. Or, maybe – more importantly – I could read the past.

In his book, Without, the poet Donald Hall writes to his wife, Jane Kenyon, after she dies at the age of 47. His poems are filled with the absence of her – with what is stark and terrifying about her absence and also about the small daily domestic tasks that are notable only in that she is gone. One of the book’s final poems, called “Letter After a Year,” begins this way:

Here is a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”

Is this not the way we live our lives: loving and losing? Learning again to love, learning again to lose. Again and again. And each time we lose a thing, we feel as though we cannot bear it. Cannot take another breath, cannot bear another step. And yet we do.

And yet we do, beautiful Janet. We do.