a rocket, already in space

Yesterday, the man at the bus stop across the street from my house turned his head away as we pulled out of the driveway. I was perplexed. For months now, this ritual: I back out of my driveway, pull alongside the curb next to him, he waves, I wave back, and then I head down the street on my way. But yesterday, Im alongside the curb and he has turned away, looking down toward the highway where the cars and trucks speed past.

I think about this periodically throughout the day. His turning away seems intentional, but it is hard to imagine why. Is there a response he is expecting to elicit from me? Have I done something to offend? What are the dictates of etiquette for such an odd type of interaction, over time?

I wake with my son curled up against me. There is dried blood on his cheek from a nosebleed in the night. I paw at his face with a tissue while he squirms. He throws his arm around my neck then and mashes his nose into my face. I bring my hand to my cheek after he gets up to see whether he has left traces of blood, but there is nothing.

This morning, the bus stop man is out there and he waves and I wave back and its like old times again. I drive off with the windows down, let the cool air in.

The construction on the new bridge has closed the old bridge, causing a kind of quiet chaos. I sit in barely moving traffic, seething. 

As we inch along, I see a man walking on the sidewalk, the wing of a black crow tattooed across the right side of his face.

We drive past the river and then up around the library. My boy says: I see the waterfall where we sometimes used to go.

Tensions are running high. Horns honk. A white van pulls off the road and on to the sidewalk. We crawl past boarded up storefronts. As I pass the van, I see its driver resting his forehead on the steering wheel.

It is not only the bridge that is closed, but several streets around it as well. The downtown is a disaster. Cars lined up in all directions. There are no signs showing detour routes; on the bridge, just a man in an orange vest angrily pointing.

My son unprompted says: “Do you know why I was whispering put me down? Because I was imagining I was in a rocket that was already in space.”

I dont stay the course. I keep thinking I can find an alternate route. At every decision point, it seems, I make the wrong turn. I hit dead ends. One way streets in the wrong direction.

I verbalize my frustration. This makes my son cry. I turn around to see fat tears rolling down his cheeks.

Im sorry, I tell him: Im so, so sorry.

I drive for more than an hour in a seemingly endless loop within a single mile radius of my house. I imagine abandoning the task altogether parking the car, walking him home, spending the morning watching cartoons with him, the faded blue blanket wrapped around us.

Is it a school day or a home day? he would ask, and I would tell him, Lets pretend its a camping day, and wed eat popcorn and drink hot chocolate, float marshmallows in it.

Im in my gym clothes for my first appointment of the morning, but the bridge nonsense makes me miss it and my schedule is thrown off. Ive brought my work clothes with me, but have nowhere to change into them and little time before the next meeting. I surreptitiously pull on my tights in the front seat of my car, parked on a side street beneath a dogwood tree.

I step out of the car fully dressed and the sense of accomplishment I feel is disproportionate to the task, but after the earlier frustrations, I decide to allow myself a few moments of smug self-satisfaction.

The day plods along with its banalities. I make phone calls. I write things down. I make piles of papers, move them from one side of my desk to another. Outside, on the street, a man and a woman argue in front of the restaurant.

You are not listening, he says, why dont you listen to me?

She says: Why are you always saying the same thing?

Because you dont listen, he says. Please, he says.

Oh, Ill listen, she says, I will when you have something to say.

The last meeting of the day requires a walk in the sun and I am grateful for it, despite the wind. At the skating rink, kids with their skateboards show off for each other, throw their bodies around, reckless. I feel the familiar ache in my knees as if the suggestion of such movement alone triggers pain. The day has been a wearying one.

I hear the cooing of birds and scan the nearby tree branches, searching, but I dont see them. I stop on the sidewalk, stand still for a moment, listening. I look in the direction of the sound but still, I cant seem to locate them.

I close my eyes. Feel the wind, the sun on my face. I take a deep breath, hold it for as long as I can bear it, then exhale. 

slowly, slowly

I’m trying to figure out why a strange sort of sadness washes over me while I stand at the kitchen counter, washing brussel sprouts, peeling carrots, trimming the ends of celery stalks.

These days, darkness falls early. So much of the day spent in darkness. But it is not simply the darkness that creates this sense that I have lost something that I don’t understand. This growing unease as the sink fills with the bitter ends of things.

At night, in dreams, frustration: I am standing on line in the grocery store and the scale breaks down as I approach. I am running at the track by the stadium and I fall, unable to rise. I am driving downtown and a hole in the earth opens up – traffic stops. Always, something is holding me back. I am poised, but consistently thwarted.

My friend K. sends me a message about the man she said she would not think about until January. The one she fell in love with before she knew she would leave her husband. They’ve spent an evening together – a lovely one – and I ask, “so what now?” And she says, “We are taking it slow, slow.”

I tell her yes, of course, you must. But the truth is that I have never understood how this is possible – to go slowly in that early blush of love. How is it that you keep from trying to swallow this person whole? To devour him where he stands?

Patience – I recognize – is not one of my virtues.

I can remember past winter afternoons, at the counter, preparing a meal, when this same sense of sadness has crept in. Sometimes, it would take the shape of nostalgia and I would call my aunt to ask for a recipe of my childhood. In this way, I learned to make chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions (simmered so slowly and for so long that the meat falls from the bone); caldo verde (at table, add a splash of red wine); salt cod (soak it overnight and change the water at least twice, then simmer gently in milk). And attempting to replicate these dishes would for a time, give me focus, and keep the sadness at bay.

But tonight, I don’t make the phone call. I plod ahead on my own. There is nothing of my childhood in tonight’s meal: curried carrot soup, roasted brussel sprouts, celery stalks braised in butter and white wine.

The poet Elizabeth Bishop met poet Robert Lowell at a dinner party one winter evening, and this meeting began a correspondence between the two that would span the thirty years until Lowell’s death in 1977.

I’m reading their letters slowly – painfully slowly amid the swirl and pull of other professional and personal obligations. I am struck by how conversational and chatty their tone – the early ones, at least. But also by their intimacy. How they offered each other up these glimpses into their lives.

In her second letter, Elizabeth begins to write about a review of another poet then interrupts herself – and when she comes back later, she explains that she had been called out to see the birthing of a calf. And she describes a bit of the scene for him: “…after several falls on its nose it was standing up and shaking its head & tail & trying to nurse.”

These days, it seems, we are all writing about our lives all the time. We offer up these glimpses through our status updates and our twitter feeds, but we are projecting those with a megaphone from a stage, it seems, to a noisy crowd.

But when Lowell writes this to Elizabeth, after his divorce is finalized:

“It’s funny at my age to have one’s life so much in and on one’s hands. All the rawness of learning, what I used to think should be done with by twenty-five. Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing. I suppose that’s what vocation means – at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction, so I’m thankful, and call it good as Eliot would say.”

It is evident, I think, that this is a private conversation between two people who are beginning something of a journey together – of discovering each other, of discovering self.

Why is it, I wonder, that we do this? That we broadcast these stories of ourselves in our lives – that we create this projection of who we think we are, who we might want to be? What is it, then, that we expect, when we send bits of ourselves out into the world?

A sense, perhaps that we are not alone? That something in us is recognized, recognizable? That the darkness that surrounds so early in the day – that pauses the hand chopping carrots at the counter to stare wistfully out the kitchen window – is the same darkness that at times settles in on you, no matter the distance that separates. And perhaps the knowledge that the thread – invisible, fine, but strong – that connects us, one to the next, in ever enlarging patterns, will lead us back to the quiet, intimate things – if only we will pause long enough to allow them. 

sweet persimmon

I meet a friend for dinner after work and we sit at the bar of one of the four restaurants in my current rotation. She’s never been there before, and I go on at length about the other places I love. One that I mention – my favorite these days – makes her frown. “I haven’t been there in a long time,” she says, “because I am very superstitious.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, that man – who killed himself – in the kitchen… I haven’t been able to go back since then.”

This morning, remembering, I think she said that he hanged himself but I am not certain. I may be thinking that only because I have just finished reading the memoir of a war journalist. There are many suicides in that book, and they are all by hanging.

I can only really think of one “good” way to die – peacefully, in sleep, having drifted off seeing the faces of those you love around you. Perhaps there are others, but I know that hanging is not one.

I try very hard to put this thought out of my head. I hope that I will have forgotten this when the time comes, but I fear that this is not a thing one easily forgets.

I am expecting a bit of news today, so I am on edge, waiting. I wonder about the clinical diagnosis that will develop around the compulsive refreshing of a web page. The anticipation in the moment when the space goes white, the expectation of what will have changed when the familiar alignment of colors and light returns – as if by magic. The ways in which these bits of light arrange and rearrange themselves in such array.

How strange to think that mere patterns of light from this screen have brought me to tears. Have exhilarated. Aroused. The power these magic boxes hold.

It is almost impossible not to call to mind any number of experiments in which rodent behavior has revealed some unsettling truth about our own. The way we will continue to push the levers of pleasure – even when our own well-being is at risk.

At dinner, we talk about work and about the circuitous paths our lives have taken to arrive where we now find ourselves. We speak a similar, familiar language although our fields are not the same. At the far end of the bar, there is a woman holding her infant daughter. She cradles her in one arm, leaving the other free for her fork, her glass of wine. I think about the rest of my family – at this very moment on the other side of town in another restaurant – a ritual of their own. I imagine my son drawing in his notebook and my daughter and M., alternating between comfortable silences and exuberant conversational bursts.

When we all gather at home, we disperse quickly. There are bedtime stories to be read, work to be done, phone calls to be made. The kitchen table is piled high with newspapers and magazines, bills to pay, invitations to support this cause or another. A few of last night’s dishes still remain in the sink, unwashed. Is this the way, I wonder, that we are supposed to live? Are we together enough? Do we give each other enough space? Do we maintain an environment where our children can thrive? Do we provide each other sustenance? Do we love sufficiently, selflessly enough? How will we remember this time, years from now? Will we say that we were happy? What will we remember most, after all?

One of the few memories I have of Korea is of ripe persimmons. Every year, when they appear at the market, I buy a few, just to remember. I am the only one in my house who will eat them. Last weekend, I brought home two and the first was so juicy and sweet and perfect that it brought tears to my eyes. I spooned out the brilliantly-colored flesh and let it sit on my tongue, cool and slippery. I knew I would have to wait for the second one. There is a narrow window of time when the fruit is perfectly ripe and only then does it offer up its luscious sweetness. I grew impatient, though, as I am prone to do, and this morning, even as I drew the tip of my paring knife around the calyx, I knew it was not ready. But the damage had been done. The flesh was too firm and as soon as I brought it to my mouth, its tannins left their furry film on my lips and tongue. I carried that sensation through the morning – a reminder that my own careless haste ruined the thing I most desired.

Several months ago, a summer storm blew down the wooden fence in our backyard. In the neighbor’s yard, the beach roses grow wild and leggy and know nothing of garden borders. We’ve not yet replaced the fence and now the line that separates us is invisible, hidden by the weedy overgrowth. When I take mental inventory of the endless list of household tasks that we have failed to adequately address, this one looms large. I dream sometimes of drifts of beach roses covering great swaths of the earth.

I do receive news, but not what I have been waiting for. A baby arrives early to a friend. Five weeks premature, she is tiny, tiny – barely five pounds, but perfect. Her mother has waited several years for this moment. Years of treatments and procedures. Miscarriages. Years of inconsolable grief. I can remember times when she did not think it would be possible. But, time passes. Circumstances change.

Not a single one of us, after all, can see the future.