The Secret Spring

We are about to enter one of my favorite times of year: the secret spring. You would never think it was spring, looking out the window. It has snowed here several times, and New York has practiced its wretched alchemy, converting the once pristine snowbanks into sullen gray floes that gird the street corners. The sidewalks are all carefully cleared to avoid lawsuits. But the corners are a no-man’s land, disdained by the snowplows, ignored by the building owners; the gray ice has congealed into humped and slick outcroppings, like molten glass that has hardened haphazardly.

Even as the season proclaims itself winter, inwardly I can feel that it has turned toward spring. It’s more a kindling of feeling then the feeling itself ; a sense that we have accomplished the pivot and are moving in a new direction. The days are just perceptibly longer now, and we are turning out of darkness and into light. The winter is a time of contraction, a falling inward. The secret spring brings the first relief from that compression. It is as if the year were a roulette wheel and we that hard steel ball rolling around the track inside. But the roulette wheel is not circular, it’s egg shaped. We’re at that point where the ball has just passed around the little end of the egg, the time of greatest compression. Now we begin to expand.

I lived for a while in California, where I was blessed with many fine spring days right in the middle of winter. I find myself more comfortable wintering in the Northeast. In the Northeast, the waning light corresponds to colder weather and gray days. There is a perverse coziness in feeling depressed on a cold gray soggy day. The weather invites you to fall inward, urges you to sleep. It is sympathetic to your mood, and there is an implication that perhaps your mood will in its turn be sympathetic to the weather, and lighten as the weather does.

In California, these shortest days are accompanied by rains that wake the plants. The hills cover themselves with leprochaun green grass. The moss on the trees softens. Daffodils bloom in January. When I lived in California, my inner world and the outer world felt in discord, and that only intensified winter depression. How much worse it is to be depressed on a lovely day, to find your mood in disharmony with that of the environment, to be the gloomy guest at the wedding. The inability to grasp a proffered pleasure is more painful than the outright denial of it. And therefore, hell might turn out to be a pleasant enough place for all but the damned.

On the other hand, it is a joy to be happy in inclement weather. I have rarely felt as alive as I did one day on the winter marshes of Ipswich. All around me the reeds stretched beige and brittle. The wind prowled over the mudflats and tugged at my jacket. I was intensely aware of the spark of life that I held protected inside my winter clothes.

I can feel the slow awakening of the buds beneath the snow. I know that soon the sun will burn the snow to water and reveal green shoots that look like blades of grass with a stripe of white down the center. I’ll walk over to observe the bulbous head of a crocus, still wrapped in a white layer like paper. The air will be cool, but it will feel moist, too. I’ll stand looking at the crocus, and at the soil that looks like old coffee grounds, sodden and brown, and my shoes will drink the snowmelt, until my wet socks inform me that they’ve had their fill.

The secret spring is a relinquishing of grief and a return to life and appetite. I love it because it is the time of infinite possibility. I love it as I love the moment just before the dance begins when all of the songs are yet to be played, and all of the partners still possibilities. It is a secret and a promise, a first beckoning, not yet a compulsion. It is a low tremolo on the strings prefacing the first full gesture of the symphony.

It is the moment after the first moment, the time after God stretched out his hand and said “let there be light”. The moment when the universe knew that it would be populated, and felt still its cool dark empty spaces and welcomed the stars.

There is a corresponding, complementary time in the Summer. Summer is the time of the promise fulfilled, the time when the sun pushes the plants into greenest unfolding. Summer sunsets can evolve so voluptuously that it seems that time itself must be stretching out. My favorite place to watch those sunsets is the porch of my family’s house overlooking Huntington Bay. The porch faces northeast, so that the sun itself is not visible, blocked by a point of land. Unable to directly view the departing sun (and have my vision obscured by floating green spots), I find my attention directed to the response of the landscape to the changing light. The bay becomes a great bowl filled with liquid colors. The water reflects molten lead and rose. The houses across the way flash orange fire from their windows. A few sailboats lean over, slouching leisurely back to their moorings, the white bellies of their sails touched with gold. If I have any say in the design of Heaven it will include that view, and the smell of sausage grilling, and an abundance of fresh sweet corn.

Yet in that time of greatest expansion and relaxation begins the first movement back toward contraction. There is the smallest tincture of sadness in the languorous yawn and stretch of the Summer evening. And this serves to intensify the flavor of the moment, as a drop or two of vinegar can lend depth to the flavor of a soup.

We stand on the threshold of the secret spring ; the first stirrings of lust, the small sudden spark that passes between two not-yet lovers, a pheromonal message sent and received, slyly, like a note passed in class. It is a tingling in the nose and at the nape of the neck. And there opposite us on the other side of the wheel is the apex of summer; the post-climactic moment, the instant after release. Two lovers lie entwined, one lying on the other’s body as if it were a raft, the two carried now on gentle meandering currents, down and down, inward, back to the center, back to the beginning. Two nestled in each other’s arms, like squirrels in a hollow. Pulses slowing, contracting unhurriedly toward hibernation, until that time when they, like the world, will be born again.

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Echoes of Weeping

Knollwood Beach is surrounded by a black chain link fence. It’s an ugly enough fence, and it makes the beach look like a kind of gulag, although it is softened by the beach roses planted on the inside. The fence replaced a low red brick wall that used to be there. The wall was good for sitting on, and for placing slices of pie on top of for the fourth of July pie eating contest. The wall had a small gateway that led directly into the street in front of our house. It was through that gateway that my youngest brother, not quite two, ran onto the street, was hit by a truck and killed.

The truck was backing up at the time. It was driven by a friend of mine, and I had been talking to him. It was May, and the summer was just in view, the shape of it emerging out of the constraints of the schooltime winter. I was 16, my friend 17. He was driving a truck that belonged to a fish store, where my sister and I had worked the summer before. I had liked working there, despite the incredible stench that clung to my clothes. All my friends worked there. I got to hang out with my friends and make money, too. To my mind as an adolescent, the two great goods of making money that I did not need to account for and hanging out with my friends easily outweighed the negatives of tedious work and malodorous environment.

My friend had just driven up to drop off another friend. We chatted briefly. He looked behind him, and backed up. My youngest brother was so short and so close to the back of the truck, that we didn’t see him. When I try to recall the event, which is not often, it is like viewing a series of artifacts. Here is the image of me speaking through the driver’s window to my friend. Here is the image of my brother’s small body travelling around the left rear tire of the truck. Did I actually see that? I don’t know for sure, but I have the memory of it, as I have a visual memory of many stories that I have heard. Now here is a kind of treasure map that outlines the paths of the actors immediately afterwards. Here is the X where the truck hit my brother. Here is the dotted line that represents my sister scooping up my brother and running up to the house. Hear is a circle where my mother was inside the house. I could not see her, but I heard her scream. Here is the dotted line of my mother carrying my brother out to neighbor’s lawn, where a paramedic, another neighbor, has already appeared. Here is the X where my brother’s body was laid on the lawn, my parents and the paramedic crouched over him. Where are the memories of my emotions? I can’t find them. Did I misplace them, or was that event like a cut from a knife so sharp that you do not feel the slice, but only realize that you are wounded when you see the blood?

Trying to find something helpful to do, I told my friend to move his truck, to get ready to take my brother to the hospital. But an ambulance was already on the way, and we stood on the street, on the corner where the beach pushes furthest into the road, waiting and superfluous. And now I come across an image that I am sure is a real memory, even though it has become iconic. I know that I did not invent it, because it surprised me. From down the street, we could see my friend’s mother running toward us. She is a dancer, graceful, and I can picture her now, her arms thrown out over her head, her hands angled out as she reaches toward her son from a hundred yards away. In my memory she is frozen there, a carved figure, a caryatid, her body sculpted into the curves and angles of movement. She wails for her son, a terrible cry of pain and sympathy. For a moment I am baffled. Why is she comforting him? It’s my brother who was the victim. And then in a rush, I realize that in the irrevocable moment of the accident not only was my brother crushed, but my friend too, although it is his fate to remain alive.

We all of us want to undo the awful accident. But we are like passengers facing backwards in a train, borne away on the invariant geometry of the rails. As soon as the thing bursts into view, it is already beyond our grasp, though it dwindles for a long time in our sight.

Many years later, I heard another wail on that corner. This time it came from my cousin. He had just returned from the hospital. A friend of his, one of the kids from down the block, had dived off a pier into the bay below. The friend had made a simple, graceful, direct dive headfirst, but the tide was ebbing, the arc of the dive not wide enough and he had broken his neck in the treacherous mud under the too-shallow water. My cousin was in med school at the time. He knew all too well what that injury meant. His friend was paralyzed from the chest down. There was little hope for the recovery of his movement, and nothing at all that my cousin could do to change it. I remember my cousin meeting his parents on that same corner, and the wail that burst out of him as they hugged him. (Where was I at the time? I can’t recall. My memory of the event seems almost as if I was in a boom camera looking down at them. Yet I am sure I witnessed it.)

Years later still. One of the neighbors had been taken off to the hospital. She was the woman who gave all the kids art lessons down on the beach one summer. Occasionally, I stumble across the improbable portraits of tiger lilies that we created, the pictures slumbering now in garages and attics. The ambulance carried her away, and we wondered – had she had a stroke? No one was sure, and from the porch of our house, I could see my sister and my cousin’s wife meet down on that same corner and discuss it. No, it turned out, the neighbor had had no stroke. There was no weeping on the corner that day.

The beach association planted some ornamental grass on the corner a while ago. It grows there like an unruly shock of hair on the forehead of a beautiful straight-haired boy. There is no way one would know that this corner has heard such weeping. Why should such an innocuous looking place be the witness of tragedy? Is there something special about it? No, I believe that it is simply that I have spent more time near there than any other place. Stand in any one spot and the whole multifarious parade of life will pass in review. Life will unpack all its wares for you, dealing out awful moments as offhandedly as it does sunsets and thunderstorms.

One place is much like another, as far as life is concerned. There is no place to hide from tragedy, without withdrawing entirely from life. I don’t want to withdraw from life; I mean to participate in it as fully as I can. I know that I will return to Knollwood again, to be with people I love in a place I love. And therefore I knowingly risk that I may yet again hear the weeping of witnesses on that innocent corner.

Memories of Things Imagined

This last week, my mother’s side of the family gathered for its annual holiday party. Her brothers – my uncles – bestrode my narrow childhood world like colossi. They were demigods with huge laughs and gargantuan appetites, bone-crushing handshakes and stories of adventures that stood my hair on end. Hercules and Hermes combined, they were the offspring of mischief and might. I only saw them once in a great while, and always orbited them in awe and delight. How different they were from my father’s only sibling, a sister who lived in Europe. She would arrive for visits exuding fascinating perfumes. She had an exotic accent, at once foreign and familiar. Her children, my cousins, had unusual clothing and curious footwear. My father’s sister always seemed to me the height of sophistication. My mother’s brothers were paragons of vigor, large and lively dogs, cunning, laughing, and a little dangerous.

My mother had a picture of them when they were young, standing on a dock by a lake. They are looking into the camera and laughing. I looked at the picture so many times that it became familiar – the feel of the dock, the sound of their laughter. I could imagine it as a memory of my own, as if I was there when the picture was taken. Of course it could not be my memory because I was not yet born at the time it was taken. But memories accrete to such objects, just as edged and faceted crystals grow on a string floating in sugar water.

There is a part of me that still thinks of my mother’s brothers as a towering grove, and believes that I might yet scurry around the oak trunks that were their legs, eluding the pursuit of my siblings. But at the party I can see that time has begun to put its mark on them. Their faces are more lined, bodies more rigid, and handclasps less fierce. I am their size now. It seems as if some of their vigor has been drained out of them and into me, inflating me, deflating them. I am astounded to find myself a grown up. More shocking yet: middle aged.

The next generation tumbles about the gathering, ranks of cousins, cousins once removed, and second cousins wrestling and twirling, and generally engaged in the very serious business of play. The second-oldest of the Uncles present stands up to make a toast. He’s the most boisterous of them, all tumultuous embrace and booming voice. But he has a way of focussing attention that is remarkable. He goes from loud and jocular to grave and attentive instantaneously. When you are speaking to him and he does this, you feel as if he has stopped the whole raging carnival of the world to listen to the specific thing you have to say at that instant.

He stands at the holiday party, drink in hand , subito piano, and miraculously all the kids arrest their games in mid-careen and lie on their bellies, heads balanced on their palms and listen to him. The moms scramble behind him, cameras in hand, to capture the improbable moment. The kids listen to the toast, and for them it’s a story, the story of a little house in which all these grandpas and grandmas grew up. I imagine that all of those kids can picture this house that they’ve never seen, and that they’ll remember what they’ve pictured. The image of that little house may reappear to them in dreams, or bubble up years from now, a snapshot memory. And they’ll remember that this was an important place, but they will not be able to identify it, because it is a place that they have never seen except in their imaginations. It is the artifact of an instant, the moment that their great-uncle spun out the thread of a story and they gathered in the other end. In that instant an image formed and hung between them like a pendant.

Uncle Monster

I have long maintained that an uncle’s job is to be a cross between a large dog and a jungle gym. After last Thanksgiving I have decided to add shooting gallery duck to that list.

It was getting to the end of the meal when my nieces and nephews sent up their messenger. My brothers and I were lounging at the table, our distended bellies challenging the tensile strength of our belts. My sisters darted about like hummingbirds, zooming in to clear off the plates and shoot us meaningful looks that we pretend to be too obtuse to interpret. The kids had all been exiled to the basement. The occasional yelp floated up the stairs, but no full throated howls, which meant that the casualty level in the basement was still acceptable.

I have 10 nieces and nephews ranging in age from 1 to 11. When the whole family gathers, they often play together in a tumbling pack. Despite the age difference, the kids all seem to like it. The older ones like it because they get a host of minions to do their bidding, little hands to construct pyramids, and serve as lackeys. The younger ones like it because the older ones always construct games of enormous detail and drama. Adults can’t sustain the detail and scope of imaginative play that an older child can. The only problem is that the younger kids tend to have a limited attention span, and right in the middle of the heroic assault on the ogre’s castle they might decide that they are not stalwart foot soldiers, but instead happy little puppies. This is not a problem that General Eisenhower ever had to face.

Sometimes the fascination of their games eludes me completely. For a while, there was a craze among my nieces and nephews for the game “Dog Show”. In this game, each of the kids picks a dog name and a breed of dog to embody. They all participate in the Dog Show with its attendant promenades and display of tricks. As an Uncle, my job is to attend the promenade and to issue commands like “Sit” “Lie Down” and “Roll Over”. I have not yet issued the command “Run over and bite Uncle Mike on the ass”, though I have been tempted.

There is something surreal about seeing the kids earnestly acting like dogs, something that could hardly be explained to a non-participant, and that is why the family has carefully videotaped it. This way we can be sure to show it at a time that will be particularly embarrassing for the niece or nephew. Maybe the first time they bring home a special someone….

Since I grew up in a large family I am familiar with games involving a cast of thousands. My older sister excelled at organizing all the kids into pageants with grand mythological themes and dance numbers. She was a cross between D.W Griffith and Busby Berkley, I think. Several Christmases she staged dance presentations for the entertainment of my Grandparents who, to their great credit, never once fell out of their chairs laughing. She had a real flamboyance, and I’m sure that if she had the wherewithal she would have had us dressed in satin knickers for the Minuet number. And I’m certain that I would have worn them, and not even questioned at all. When you are young, you assume that everything that happens in your family is the way things happen in all families. “Of course”, you think “Christmas is the holiday where we put on satin knickers and dance the Minuet for Grandma and Grandpa.” It is only when friends come over and get that slack jawed look of disbelief that you begin to realize that perhaps your family is a little different than the others.

Being in the middle ranks of kids, I was not at first aware of the subtle ranks of hierarchy that my sister had built into her games. There was a game we used to play to the musical accompaniment of a recording of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. In this piece, there is a movement that musically describes the descent of a mule train into the canyon. I remember pacing around the living room on all fours, matching my mule gait to the rhythm of the music. Years later, I recalled that game to my sister. “Do you remember how we would all play mule to the “Grand Canyon Suite’. “Oh, ” she replied, “Not all of us were mules.” My sister had made an ass of me.

From the nature of the sounds drifting up from the basement this Thanksgiving, it sounded like the eldest cousin was calling the tune tonight. He is a rambunctious boy, and his chosen games drift in the direction of Lord of the Flies. They usually end with one of the younger cousins crying, and another cousin explaining earnestly that it was an accident. “I didn’t mean to step on his head…”

As we sat at the table, one of the middle cousins appeared, a Hermes ascended from the underworld, who said with conspicuous nonchalance “Uncle Tom, we have something to show you.” I went to the top of the stairs and peered down. Below, the lights were off, and there was a good deal of rustling and giggling going on in the gloaming. Clearly, the surprise in store for me was not going to be a pleasant one. I felt like the crewman on Star Trek, the one you’ve never seen before who gets beamed down to the planet with the landing party. “Spock – You and Bones and Sulu go wait over there in the well protected area. Crewman PhaserBait go check out the really dark cave with the fumes and tentacles.”

But being an Uncle means knowing when you are going to have to accept a Lilliputian beating in the name of holiday fun, so I submitted to my fate, and donned the mantle of the Uncle Victim. I descended. The basement is a cavernous cement room strewn with various piles of furniture, exercise implements, and play apparatus. The cousins had been organized into two battalions. One group was protected by a fortification of furniture and leisure tools. The other group hid in the back room, waiting to attack me from the rear once I had engaged the defenders of Fort Sofa. They had turned the lights off, and had a few flashlights that they shined in my eyes me, attempting to blind me, while they flung various dolls and balls at me.

Earlier that day, we had made a rule of “Soft Objects Only” after one of the younger and fiercer of my nephews had begun belaboring the kneecaps of his uncles with a large wooden puzzle. So now, under the hail of missiles, I felt relatively safe from crippling. Nonetheless, a hard flung beanie baby to the crotch is no laughing matter. My older brother is content to act as Uncle Target, but I decided that I would not play Wooly Mammoth to their Neanderthals. I decided to try to capture the flashlights and become Uncle Monster.

I don’t know why kids like playing Monster so much, but I do know that it is a perennial favorite. You’ll be sitting in a chair, a smiling and delightful Uncle, and one of the kids will come over and say “You be a monster”. It is no use telling them that this is precisely what your girlfriends ask you not to be. You are dragooned into dragonhood.

The successful monster is hopelessly inefficient. The successful monster shambles along, making lots of noise and considerably less footspeed then the shrieking victims. The successful monster is extremely unobservant, and will blindly rattle the furniture very close to his intended victims, unable to find them even though they are in plain sight and screaming. Both Frankenstein and the Mummy are very successful monsters.

The point of the game as I see it, is to always be on the verge of capturing the victims, but never to actually get them. The successful monster is always just behind his prey, just about to strike. The older kids can sustain this tension for quite a while, but the younger kids invariably lose it. For them, there is a moment in which the game leaps over into reality. Suddenly you are not the Uncle playing monster, you actually have become the Monster. The victim stands stock still and in a quiet and distinct voice says “You’re not a monster anymore, okay?”

Downstairs, roaring and shambling about, assailed by the slings and beanie babies of outrageous fortune, I finally managed to seize both flashlights. I turned them off, and quietly moved off to another part of the darkened room. I began giving out my Stalking Lion snarl, a kind of low growl in the nose. It’s a pretty effective monster noise, but they’re mostly familiar with it, and it only quieted them a bit. So I switched over to a new one, the Velociraptor Hiss. It’s a two parter, with a semi snore inhale, and a hiss on the exhale. That seemed to get their respect. There was silence punctuated only by my dreadful reptilian exhalations. Then the quiet voice of one of my nieces, overly polite. “Uncle Tom, would you turn on the flashlight, please.”

Victory! I turned back on the flashlight magnanimously, savoring the moment of my success. Uncle Monster triumphant! The Lilliputians put to rout!

I was returned to my proper station by a well flung nerf football to the back of the head.

On Letting Go

 

The doorman at the building has a list of guests for my friend’s party. He scans the list, looking for my name and I look it over, too. My eye trips over the name of my ex-girlfriend, and my stomach drops to somewhere below my navel.

 

I have known that I would run into her eventually, have felt the tingle of premonition as I walked past her neighborhood. I am half longing for and half dreading our meeting. I feel totally unprepared for it.

 

For the next several hours of the party I’m on edge, drinking beer in a workmanlike fashion, building up the anesthetic buffer of mild drunkenness. Each time the door opens I look over to see if she has come in, my muscles tensing. I know that I will feel her presence like a blow. The anticipation of discomfort is worse than discomfort itself.

 

I miss the actual moment of her entry. I turn toward the door, and she has materialized there in a zone of absolute clarity. It is as if the air around her allows for some sort of super-acuity of focus – all of her features stand out in crisp delineation and the rest of the room blurs softly. I am assailed by the details of her. The fit of her pants, the shape of her rib cage, the profile of her body. She stands like a bow being put under tension, a curve straining forward, rib cage sitting atop the hips thrust forward, her thighs curving back.

 

I abandon the conversation that I am in, and go to her. We hug, and she wants to know how I am and how my trip was. I return the appropriate banal responses automatically – I’m fine, my trip was good – but I feel like I’m reciting my lines from inside a washing machine. One with a really clear glass door.

 

I look into her dark eyes, the irises almost black, merging imperceptibly into the pupils. They dance a little as we speak, but it is not a dance of welcome. Her eyes perform the wary footwork of a fencer, and she holds her smiling features composed before herself, like a shield.

 

Although we parted months ago, both willingly, I have still not really managed to let go. It is the same with all of my exes. There is a part of me that refuses to believe that I have lost access to them. In my mind, all of my former girlfriends have gone off to the Land of the Lotus Eaters. There they remain, warmed and softened in the golden light of re-creative memory, their arms open and beckoning to me. They are always waiting for me there.

 

It is disconcerting to meet them in their real lives. They have moved on, following the meanderings of their own lives, changing, evolving. They are married, with children, happy, divorced, lonely, successful, beleaguered. I am very close with some of them, and I’m happy to accompany them through the passages of their lives. But I feel the tension between my relationship with them as they are, the selves that have evolved and that I know are real, and my relationship to them as they are in the Land of the Lotus Eaters and that my heart refuses to believe might be illusion.

 

Back again in my apartment, I am awash in the flotsam of my history. I open my desk drawers and see the things I don’t really want to keep, but that I could never bring myself to discard – small electronic items, old floppy disks, correspondences, business cards. It’s not the objects themselves that I hold onto so fixedly, but the intentions and fantasies that have become married to them. I can’t bring myself to toss the broken headphones because they are wed to Tom the Composer. Discarding business cards feels like discarding the person that gave me the card, and worse, discarding the person that I intended to become when I collected the card.

 

I don’t want to jettison all those Toms-that-might-have-been, but it takes so much effort to keep them all in suspended animation. I feel the dreadful weight of the accumulated fantasies in those desk drawers. A small kind of panic seizes me as I think, “Sooner or later I’m going to have to deal with all this…” and quickly close the drawer.

 

How much simpler it seems to flee to a place with an empty desk!

 

Of course I know that wherever I go, the desk drawers will inevitably fill up with new items of the same ilk as the old. The hordes of Toms-that-might-have-been will attach themselves to new objects, and call for nourishment. They drain me, those parasites. Holding on to the past takes effort, as does holding on to any weight.

 

It is time, I think, to begin the practice of letting go. So I open the drawers and begin deciding whether each item is something I need right now.

 

I pick up a stack of business cards in my drawer. I look at each card, remembering the person that gave me that card, and the person that I was when I received it. I let the cards fall into the wastebasket by my desk. When the basket is full, I carry it to the garbage chute in the hall. I tilt the basket up, and the cards tumble down the chute. They make the soft sound of fluttering wings as they fall away from me.