beginnings

write your way to the tree

There is a new project; its newness thrills.

It is all possibility.

I make notes, follow unexpected paths. Discover that one idea is linked to another and then I am scurrying around the library at lunchtime, stacking books.

As to the writing itself, it is difficult to know where exactly to begin.

I turn back to Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings:”

Paul Valery also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.

No small task, tree creation.

I sit in on the final presentations of graduate students in architecture and in the conversation that follows, there is talk of beginnings. One young woman has chosen to design interventions for four city sites. Instead of presenting one problem, she works with four.

“This is a project about beginnings,” someone says.

“I guess I now know how to begin,” the student says when she is offered the opportunity to speak.

She says: “I was sitting in a courtyard in Oaxaca and it was a public space, but set back a bit, so it was also quiet. I wanted to create that sense of quiet in a public space.”

Ruefle:

An act of the mind. To move, to make happen, to make manifest. By an act of Congress. A state of real existence rather than possibility. And poets love possibility! They love to wonder and explore. Hard lot! But the poem, no matter how full of possibility, has to exist! To conduct oneself, to behave.

In the class, an observation is offered:

“You are working with beginnings. Each one a kind of experiment. Perhaps what is useful to know is that if you keep repeating experiments, a methodology will emerge.”

The repeated act of beginning itself revealing its hypotheses.

To begin with one small thing: a breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun.

To extract something of value and attempt to translate - through form, through the page, through material objects - that value.

To recreate it. Translated through self. Self as translation. Intervention as machine.

Text as machine through which value is extracted then reproduced.

A thought came to me while watching the presentations and hearing the questions they engendered and I carried it, turned it over in my mind, throughout:

How might you frame the problem such that your solution seems inevitable and urgent?

This is not so different, I think, from the fruit and the tree.

A breeze through a quiet courtyard in the afternoon sun. 

Sun on the skin is a place to start. Light and shadow. 

A point of entry: An archway in the courtyard.

Stone steps leading down to water. You can also say they are leading up.

Here is a way in. Here is a place to start.

Here is tender fruit on the ground. 

History, too is written backward.

Start here. Write your way to the courtyard, to the sun on your skin. Write your way to the tree.

this chill

The week has been long, dreary. I find myself, in the rare moments of stillness, staring out windows onto gray, wet landscapes. At home, at my desk, the Japanese maple tree is full now, and its branches and leaves frame my view of the gray street, gray sidewalk, gray highway below. In my office, I look out just past the gray parking lot to the buildings that rise up from the river - itself a ribbon of gray. I dream of acres of gray asphalt - slick from relentless rains. 

Colder, too. As if the sweet taste of summer - the bright sun, the heat, the profusion of blossoms - proved too much to bear, and we retreated, frightened by what the heat might make us do. 

My routines are largely the same. I make a few adjustments to accommodate my work, my various personal obligations and errands, but the large arc of my day remains intact. For the time, simpler. Fewer distractions. 

M. tells me a story of an uncle he had never met. His father’s oldest brother, who had served in World War II, who was in Germany at the end of it. Who stood among piles of the dead. 

How back at home, later, in his small town in upstate New York, he fell in love with a woman his family would not approve and so they met in secret, over years. Until they were driving back together from a restaurant one night. Until the car crash that killed her. Another death to which he bore silent witness. “He was never the same after that,” the story goes. He died, not long after. He was 47. 

I tell this to my friend and am overwhelmed by the sadness of it - this short, sad life. She says: Another way to look at it is even despite his family’s opinion, he was able to have this love for the time that he had it. 

I would like to say that brings some comfort, but I can’t stop staring at the ends of things. 

Back at the beginning, in the early years of M. and me - before we imagined it would be possible to have a life together - he would say of us: the end built into the beginning, a snake devouring its own tail. 

Later, I told him: but you misread the symbol. It means eternity. It means life. Rebirth. 

It is the same, of course - cyclical. We are always beginning and ending. It matters, I think, where you choose to look at it. 

The irises are in bloom. The columbine flowers, their pinks and blues. There are tight buds on the peonies, waiting to burst forth, exuberant. And yet, this chill. 

yellow sun

Some time ago, I get a letter from someone important. A work-related letter – a lovely, generous one with kind words about what I’d accomplished during the time I’d been in the job. With a gift – a contribution. A significant one for us. I’m delighted, of course. Thrilled. I engage all my “donor relations” skills and send notes and invite him to events. Update him on certain projects that I think he would be interested in. Weeks and months pass. No response. Several invitations go unanswered. A few declined. I tell my friend about this. She listens carefully as I go through the history. When I have finished, she says: “Oh. Do you see what happened? You thought his letter and gift was the beginning of something. But for him, it was an end.”

I drive down roads I have not driven in some time. Over the summer, it was a familiar route – second nature. But when the school year starts again, that particular drive to that particular spot in the woods is forgotten like the sand-encrusted plastic buckets and shovels that kick around in the trunk of my car. It is raining and it is dark. A distinct autumn chill. And I am reminded of the winding, tree-lined roads of Brewster that led to the reservoir where I spent so many nights of my late adolescence – climbing up the hill to the observation deck with our bottles. The moon over the dark water, shimmering.

That New Year’s Eve spent with the sea captain when he was just a boy. Before we knew he would go on to sail ships. Before we knew that he would leave his wife and daughters on land and spend his days on the vast ocean. We never made it to the party we were headed to. Instead, he parked his car near the reservoir and left the heat running. We drank beer and talked for hours. About our families. About what we thought we might want for ourselves. He turned the radio on as midnight approached and we listened as the year turned from one to the next. We raised our bottles to each other and then, he took me home. Sweet boy. Kind boy.

Years later, when I came home after my mother’s surgery, he had met the woman he would later marry. On the sidewalk in front of the movie theatre, he says, “Had I known you would be coming back, I would have waited.” It’s a lie, utterly, but I smile, touch his cheek. I am like a children’s picture book. It is so easy to see what comes next.

Seasons change. The bridge I drive over in summer in the heat – the sun high in the afternoon sky – the men lined up alongside the road casting their fishing lines far out into the water – is the same bridge I now drive over in cold rain in the dark. My chest tightens. My heart remembers something of this place that my conscious mind does not.

We take Z. to the beach when she is small. It is early spring – too cold still, but the sun is so bright and the breeze so sweet that we forget the ocean’s chill. We huddle under a blanket. M. packs the cool sand into a plastic cup, turns it over and Z. gasps with delight. He starts to makes a trail of them – around us and down the beach.

Z. takes off her socks. Lifts her round naked foot over one of the tiny castles and brings it down hard. Giggles. Does it again to the next one. She looks down the long row of them and her eyes widen. The fingers of her small hands start to twitch as she sees, all at once, the possibility. M. looks up at her and starts working faster. She looks at him for a moment, lets him see her there with her foot raised – poised, ready.

And then she is off! The laughter spills out of her – high-pitched and gleeful – as she stomps down the sand towers, one after the other. M. is packing sand in his cup carelessly now, throwing down the little mounds, backing away from her toward the water’s edge. He pantomines fear, his eyes wide. She moves toward him as fast as her legs can take her, a trail of destruction in her toddler wake.

And so it goes – the two of them, receding into the distance, the sounds of her giddy exuberance. The yellow sun up high – shining down on us all. 

we just keep walking and sometimes, we get to run

Over the phone, C. explains to me the complications of living as the other woman:

“So I’m in Bloomingdale’s the other day and I see this brush – this shaving brush. What are they made of, the good ones? Badger hair? Is it possible that it’s badger hair?”

I have no idea, I admit. Badger, really?

She goes on: “Anyway, so I see this brush and it’s beautiful and soft and full and it has this wooden base and I just want to buy it. Let them wrap it in that silver paper and put a little ribbon on it, take it over to his house. I don’t even have to see him open it. I’d just leave it on his doorstep and run.”

I am not sure what to say to this. “Oh,” I say. And then quietly, “Wow.”

“That is totally deranged, isn’t it?” She pauses. “On the upside, I guess, I’ve gotten very adept at managing disappointment.”

When I am at a loss for words, I turn to the poets. Here then is Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff:

18.
Two brothers: one of them wants to take you apart. Two brothers: one of them wants to put you back together. It’s time to choose sides now. The stitches or the devouring mouth? You want an alibi? You don’t get an alibi, you get two brothers. Here are two Jeffs. Pick one. This is how you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space between them. Jeff or Jeff? Who do you want to be? You just wanted to play in your own backyard, but you don’t know where your own yard is, exactly. You just wanted to prove that there was one safe place, just one safe place where you could love him. You have not found that place yet. You have not made that place yet. You are here. You are here. You’re still right here.

In college, my friend S. and I would pass many summer evening hours sitting on the stoop in front of her apartment and wax philosophical about life and love. She smoked clove cigarettes and the scent of them lingered in her hair, her clothes – a little sour and sweet. She had been to a drumming performance – of course, of course – this was Brown, after all – and she had gone up to speak with the drummer afterward. She said: “He said that what makes the rhythms is not the beats themselves, not when you hit the drum, but the spaces that come in between.”

How we loved the sound of that, said it over and over again, a kind of shorthand for all the more complicated things we didn’t know how to say: “It’s not the beats, but the spaces in between.” Nineteen-year-olds can be forgiven, I think, a bit of romanticizing.

I ran into her once, years later, when I was in New York for work. There wasn’t much time, but she walked me from my hotel to the train station, and sat with me there in the waiting room until it was time for me to board. She was admiring my shoes and sitting there on the molded blue chairs, she took hers off, slipped her feet into mine, stretched her legs out off the ground to examine them. “They look better on you,” she declared, and put her own back on. She had a tiny hole in the toe of one sock.

There is another woman I know in the process of divorce. Her husband of decades is not taking this well. “What will I do?” he asks her, as if requesting a grocery list or driving directions. “What will be my future?”

There is someone else, for her. Not the cause of the parting, but not unwelcome. “Tell her you are in love with me,” he says to her, when he knows that she and I will be speaking. And she does. She is beautiful and flushed when she says this to me. Like a woman who has walked slowly for many years and can suddenly break into a run.

What a strange time of life this seems, here in the middle place – a time of things ending and beginning, but even beginnings are not unencumbered, so full as they are, of the lives we’ve already lived, the choices already made. I get a message from a friend of mine who, weeks ago was so madly in love, so certain, so blissfully sure. “It’s not working out,” is all he says.

We want to believe that we can outrun the things we carry and for a time, perhaps we do – sprinting ahead, feeling the rush of wind cool against our skin, feeling the heart pounding with possibility.

But aren’t they – our ghostly companions – always there just behind us, waiting for us to slow down? When they see us falter, don’t they rush on up to us, with a towel for the sweat on our brows, and a cup of cool water to still our racing hearts?

Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff, again:

24.
You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won’t tell you that he loves you, but he loves you. And you feel like you’ve done something terrible, like robbed a liquor store, or swallowed pills, or shoveled yourself a grave in the dirt, and you’re tired. You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and you’re trying not to tell him that you love him, and you’re trying to choke down the feeling, and you’re trembling, but he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.