end of year

stillness

The streets are quiet. The week seems endless. This morning, at least, there is sun.

The writing is halting at best. A few notes before bed or an image on the way home from work that I jot down on a parking receipt while idling at a stop light. This waiting. For the new year to begin.

We returned from Rochester late at night in the cold dark, carried the sleeping boy to his bed, unloaded the car.

A stillness in the house, on the street – even down on the highway. In the office, I clear out old files, make lists, begin outlining the new year’s projects. People chatter in the hallway. They speak of their families and their travels. They tell of grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Their voices are animated and loud.

A soliloquy on stillness from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

O night without objects. O out impassive windows, O carefully closed doors; settings from olden times, taken on, credited, never completely understood. O stillness in the staircase, stillness from adjoining rooms, stillness high up on the ceiling. O mother: O you, the only one who fended off all this stillness from me in the days of childhood. Who takes the stillness upon herself, saying: don’t be frightened, it’s me. Who has the courage in the night to completely be this shelter for what is afraid, what is desperate from fear. You strike a light, and are already the noise. And you hold the light in front of you and say: It’s me, don’t be frightened. And you put it down, slowly, and there is no doubt: it is you, you are the light around the kind, familiar things that are there without any deeper meaning, good, simple, unambiguous.

A comfort in returning to stillness. To the familiar worn objects of the home we have made. After dinner with M.’s parents, we walk them back to their rooms in the assisted living facility they now call home. In each room, there are objects I recognize. Quilted wall hangings, photographs. Books. His mother asks me for a tissue from the bathroom and beneath the mirror, I see she has taped a series of photos of my son and I pause there at the sink to keep myself from weeping.

This time last year, we peeled clementines and ate them standing up in our socked feet, all of us crowded into the kitchen of the family house. It is a bit of foolish sentimentality, I know, that keeps me returning there in my memory, but the end of the year always finds me wistful, vulnerable, all the old wounds open. This season with its expectations. This season with all its promises. The pressures this season exerts on the heart.

We spend Christmas morning at M.’s sister’s house and watch our son as he tears through gift after gift, the wrapping paper crumpled and strewn all over the carpeted floor. He is exuberant, loud. For a time, don’t we all rest our sadness down on his small head? The fullness of him, the roundness of his cheeks, his mouth still sticky from a rushed breakfast of cinnamon rolls and apple slices. He is alive and electric and wide-eyed. His delight.

The drive home is quiet. The rest areas desolate, gray snow piled up in the parking lots. I sleep lightly while M. drives the endless highways. Our boy sleeps, too.

Our families are scattered and we always end up traveling for Christmas. A few years ago, we started planning our own celebration on the weekend before the holiday, so we could have a day in our own home, a day we were all together, our tiny family. We maintained some of the rituals from each of our childhoods – for me, the table covered with sweets on Christmas Eve and for M., waffles for breakfast on Christmas. One year, it was a full week before the holiday, but we didn’t care. It was a Saturday and in the morning, we stumbled downstairs and gathered around the tree in our night clothes, exchanged our gifts. And as we all sit there in the luxury of a few lazy hours, a light snow falls. By afternoon, everything – the sidewalks, the front lawn, the porch steps, the tree branches – is still and quiet and shrouded in the freshly-fallen snow.

travelogue: rochester, ny

We spend most of the day driving. The long, gray roadways. The cold winds are fierce. By late afternoon, it is dark. Snow swirls in the headlights. 

This time last year, the sky was so clear. The stars so bright. When we arrived in Geneseo, I looked up the names of the constellations and wrote them down. But there are no stars tonight and a year later, few things remain the same. 

We sleep cocooned in pitch darkness. The lights here are distant and we are high up, far from the noise of the street. The silence. The enveloping dark. 

In the morning, the sky is spread with clouds. There is a light on in an office building across the way. I see file cabinets and stacks of paper. 

Mostly, I see rooftops, snow-covered. A parking lot, empty but for one white van in the corner. A radio tower in the distance, its red light piercing gray sky. A scattering of yellow street lights. 

I take the elevator down to the fourth floor. The treadmills overlook the pool, empty now, bathed in blue light. I leave the mute television screen on the bicycle as I ride. Someone has won a race. There is a fire burning somewhere. Somewhere else, people are gathering to pray. 

This year, we are steeped in the ends of things. There is no longer a house in which to gather. We are perhaps a bit unmoored, although we will likely not speak of it. So much of our lives lived in these silences. All the fears and the sadness that we wrestle with alone.

My son plays on the floor of our hotel room while I wait for the watery coffee to drip into its paper cup. There is the dull hum of the heating fan. The shower running. 

We stop at a favorite bookstore on the way in. It is warm, sprawling. In the back corner, there is a table of maps. I run my fingers over the displays, but I am distracted, so I don’t linger. My son finds me. He is carrying a small stack of books, holds them up for me to see. I take his hand and we make our way to the checkout. 

In the cafe next door, we order soup and sandwiches and watch as clusters of people come and go, carrying their bags and boxes. At the next table, a man and woman eat their meal in silence. She stares at a point just beyond his head. I feel sadness for them and then am ashamed of my sadness. I know nothing of their lives.

As they stand to leave, she picks up her own tray and then his and says: “I’ll take this to the trash.” They walk out into the icy night. 

We go downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast and are mistaken for someone else. Welcome back, the young woman chirps at us, her hair pulled high on her head. Where are the others today?

“It’s just us,” I say, playing along. There is no reason to get into it. 

I have a dull ache at the base of my skull and the skin around my eyes feels tender, swollen, as if I had spent the evening weeping. 

In the bathroom mirror, in the unforgiving light, I do not recognize my own face. There is a yellow cast to my skin, a sunken hollow in my left cheek. A dimple in my chin I had not noticed before. 

What happens to the selves we used to be? Each year that passes, how we shed our skins. Who are we now, and what will we become? 

In the hotel pool, Christmas music plays on an endless loop. We splash around, my son and me, let the cool water carry us. We are alone. My son sings songs he has learned in school.

At one end of the cavernous room, there is a wall of glass and through it, we can see snow on the ground. In the sky, there is a band of bright light where the sun tries to break through the layers of smeary clouds.

My son wraps his arms around my neck, his legs around my waist. I walk the length of the pool like this with him. He is still singing, softly now, his mouth near my ear. There are water droplets clinging to his cheek.

Later, perhaps the sky will clear. But for now we take all the light that is given.