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.

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.