Time (Again)

In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,

A day is vast.

Until noon.

Then it’s over.

 

Yesterday’s pondwater

braided still wet in my hair.

 

I don’t know what time is.

 

You can’t ever find it.

But you can lose it.

Every one of those short lines resonates for me. Like Hirschfield, I don’t know what time is. But I know with awful intimacy lots of ways to lose it. Last week I spent one whole morning indulging a kind of fierce nostalgia brought on when two of my three children flew back out to Chicago where they now live. The Christmas vacation had been lovely, with all three kids under our roof for what seemed at the start to be an enormous stretch of unstructured time — but which was suddenly over.  With the house again feeling too big and too quiet, without even realizing it I found myself wandering in the land of memory, going back to their childhoods, baffled and sad that all of that time has passed.

Nostalgia is a classic way of losing time. If we think about it through a spiritual lens, we can recognize that it is also a form of suffering: willful, self-inflicted, delicious in a kind of perverse way — but still, in the end, suffering. We get seduced by a sweet memory, and  instead of lightly waving to it with an easy smile, we cling. Before we’ve even recognized what’s happened, the interior weather has gone grey and cold.

When I caught hold of my own nostalgia last week, it was because I realized — again and for the millionth time — that this is the truth about our backward gazing. I stopped myself and questioned this sadness swirling around me: Is there something I regret? Something I want to change or do differently? Not at all! The truth is more embarrassing:  I want to have done exactly what I have done with my life so far, lived everything that I have lived — but I don’t want it to have taken any time!  I want all the events, adventures, relationships and experiences, but I don’t want to have aged in the process, and I want still to have the same wide swathe of years in front of me that I felt I could count on when I was thirty.

What a greedy little mind, and how delusional! There are only two antidotes, as far as I’ve been able to discover. One is gratitude: we pry open these clinging hands of ours and lean into our gladness for all that life has brought us. And we bring our minds back here, to the present moment — the place where our bodies always live, after all, no matter where our imaginations wander — and greet this moment as a gift.

William Stafford wrote a poem about time called “The Gift”, which ends with these words:

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,

the composting of where you’ve been and how people

and weather treated you.  It’s a country where

you already are, bringing where you have been.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,

turning the world, moving the air, calling,

every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

 

So welcome in this new year. Here, take it: it’s yours.

Cleaning Up Christmas

There is something about dismantling the Christmas tree, no matter when it happens — something that makes me feel simultaneously nostalgic and impatient. The pre-Christmas process of choosing, setting up and then decorating the tree is communal in our family. One of the great pleasures is hearing the kids recognize various ornaments as long-lost friends as they shake off the tissue paper and then choose the perfect place to hang each one.

But taking the ornaments off the tree is almost always my job as The Mother, and it’s the decoration process in reverse: as each ornament is wrapped up again, instead of that little throb of joyful recognition it’s something more wistful. It makes me deeply aware of time passing and my children growing up, and of all the changes coming our way now that even the youngest is about to head off to college. The impatience is there in the wake of it, a kind of stiff-upper-lip salvation that says, Okay then, since we’re done with this Christmas and all the sweet reconnections it’s brought us, let’s just get on with it! Pack it up already and let’s usher in January! For God’s sake, where’s the new calendar?

I’m not sure how Christmas clean-up ended up as my job, but I suspect it’s out of the same semi-masochistic tendencies that drive other mildly neurotic mothering habits that lead us to take on the hidden, rather onerous tasks that make a house a home (such as changing sheets or cleaning out the nasty detritus in the kitchen drain). No one likes to pack up Christmas. And every mother wants to make the holiday as pure and lovely as possible for her kids. So we gladly engage them in the anticipatory fun of preparation and the sated relaxation of the holiday… and then the Christmas tree and whatever other decorations announce the season become a bit invisible. No one is much motivated to turn on the tree lights on December 26th, and though everyone does a part of the post-presents clean-up, the scene itself just kind of fades into the background, though all the trappings are still there. 

And then here it is January and a new year already. We help our kids get ready to plunge back into school, or we pack up a box of lovely new stuff there isn’t room for in the suitcase and ship it out to them in Chicago or wherever it is they’ve landed for this phase of their lives. And after they’re out of sight we finally set to work to pack it all away for another year, like the stage hands who take down the elaborate set after the show is over, sparing the audience.

I don’t really mind. Every once in a while I do feel like announcing, in a slightly passive-aggressive way: Hey folks! This stuff doesn’t happen by itself! And then I remember all the years of my own growing up, how after Christmas there would be a day when I’d come home from school and suddenly realize that everything was back to normal — just a winter day, post-Christmas. My mother never announced that she had put away the decorations and gotten the tree out of the house. But I’m pretty sure she never had any elves helping out.

Poetry For Life

I love poetry and read it all the time — sometimes old favorites that sit by my bed for months at a time and sometimes new voices (to me) that I stumble on or find through Poetry magazine. Today I was interviewed on WPKN and read some excerpts from my book Shine and Shadow. I was followed by a local lawyer cum poet, Charles Douthat, whose interview I listened to while driving home (a drive that included the intense juxtaposition of a poem of his about his infant daughter’s life-threatening illness, just as my car inched past a horrific accident on the interstate… somebody’s baby…). He’s got a book out that I just ordered, Blue for Oceans, and a website, charlesdouthat.com. I highly recommend the poems; and for you parents of teens or young adults, this poem pretty much says it all. Enjoy!

The Hold by Charles Douthat

There it is!  Just before putting out the light.
Here in the doorway to his room. 
The unmistakable smell of him,
though his train pulled out an hour ago. 
Not a child’s smell anymore, but a young man’s air 
of college nights and long wool coats 
and jokes so cool they cannot be explained. 
You had to be there, Dad, he says.

Now in his scented wake I wait,
knowing he’ll soon be gone for good,
graduating to some new city,
paying too much rent.
And this room where for years he slept
and read, while brown hair broke through
on his face and chest… Soon 
it will be a place for someone else to rest.  
But not quite yet.

This fragrant air is sweet to me 
tonight. The dusty heat rising 
from baseboard vents. The windows tight.  
His house-warmed high school books 
upright in their case.
Like me, they’ve done their work.
What we instructors had to say
has all been said.  And what he took to heart
is as unfathomable now
as what he cast away.

For he’s moving on and on his own
to worlds he’ll live to see 
but I will never fully know.  Of course 
he’ll stop again to sleep and eat.
We’ll speak again of Charlemagne
and Russell Crowe.   But the being of him,
that second self housed for years
nearly inside my skin, is elsewhere
flowing on, flown.

How does a father live, I wonder.
But it’s late now.  At the stair 
my wife is calling.  And so I remember 
that morning my son was first handed to me,
still blood-smudged and birth-slippery.
And because I was a new father then
and because my inexperience showed 
the midwife taught me how to hold a child properly.
Lightly now, she cautioned.  
But also pulling at my arms, testing me,
until I sensed what it meant
not to let go.

Baby on the Doorstep

Remember the old movie cliché about a baby left in a basket on someone’s doorstep? The camera would pan in on the basket and show a cherubic baby, warmly swaddled in blankets, and this moment of hopeful abandonment would form the central tale around which the movie revolved. When I was a a little kid, I thought it would be thrilling beyond words to hear the doorbell and be the one to find the baby on our doorstep – a perfect baby, and of course I would be allowed to keep it for my own, and naturally it would prove to be a far more satisfying sibling than my actual baby brothers.

Last week I got a mini-version of this story, delivered by Mother Nature and the gods of irony. It was on a night when I was feeling crabby about the degree to which my own children’s activities have landed me the full-time job of Chief Chauffeur. As I opened the front door at 10:00pm to do the final pick-up for that particular night, I was probably complaining (perhaps even whining) about how much I would prefer to climb into bed with a good book. I took one step out the door and then found myself locked in the solemn gaze of a baby robin, standing in the pool of light right outside the door.

It was a very cold and blustery night, and fledglings like this routinely die if they’re caught out of the nest on nights like this (not to mention the predatory stray cats we’ve recently spotted, crouching hopefully directly under the bird feeder). There were no signs of frantic parental robins searching for their darling, and this little one had probably been blundering around in the dark for a long time hoping they’d show up. In their absence, he found and followed our light all the way up onto the porch, driven by the baby bird version of a last hope. He was so worn out he didn’t move at all as I came closer and then scooped him up. But as I held him, he looked at me intently with his shiny black eyes and then gave a loud cheep! and opened his mouth wide, apparently deciding that I would make a perfectly acceptable step-mother.

Well, what else could I do? I put him in a box with plenty of rags on top of a heating pad turned low, and made sure he was shut away from our curious (indoor, but still murderous) cats. In the morning, following baby bird instructions found online, I got some canned dog food down his hungry gullet. And then came the moment of decision: should I put him outside, despite the stiff breeze and chilly temperature, and hope that his real parents would come back in time? Or should I continue as foster mother, knowing that if I kept him longer, it would be highly unlikely that his birdbrain parents would even remember his existence?

I opted to turn him loose to the universe, despite all the dangers and uncertainties. Wild baby birds are very hard for humans to raise, no matter how good our intentions; and although I might be able to manage the feeding schedule (internet instructions: every ten minutes!!!), I have no idea how to teach a baby robin how to hunt for his own worms as he approaches adulthood, nor how to break the bad news that we’re actually different species.

So I set him out in the warmest place I could find, said a little prayer and turned him loose, resolutely climbing into the car and heading out to work. It wasn’t so easy — somehow, finding a baby on the doorstep has a way of making us feel we’re responsible, singled out for this duty. Who’s to say what is really the right thing to do? But it did make me think a little differently about my own fledglings, for whom I really am responsible. Sam has just graduated from the University of Chicago, an excellent and mature young man now, but still clueless about what comes next. This next one won’t be my flight to make, but his — whatever the direction he chooses, whatever the dangers of the storm. I resolved to complain a little less about these years as Chief Chauffeur for the two still at home. All too soon will come the moment to turn these fledglings loose to the universe as well, with all its glories and perils — on little but a wing and a prayer.