Sunday, February 25, 2007

Late Sunday Afternoon Blogging & On (Not) Going Home

It is snowing quite nicely outside, chocolate chip cookies are fresh
out of the oven, and I've made my way to the couch with some of those
and a cup of tea. It's awful how fast the weekend goes, but perhaps
that is what makes this late afternoon time of greying skies and
swirling flakes so delicious. It is wonderful just to be in this moment
after a strangely tiring week.

On my way home midweek, Thursday, I went along the main road through town, which unlike Main Street, has become a busy road, splitting lakeside from countryside, and mixing little cottages with a Burger King,WaWa, MacDonald's and Seven Eleven, a Firestone, a gas station, and a generic autoshop in all of three blocks. There was a car pulled over to the side opposite me, also a police car, an older man in a yellow school crossing-guard poncho, and two young police officers standing next to a new-looking compact car, light metallic blue, whose passenger side door was open, and into which they were peering now and then. Traffic was stop and go and the speed limit is very low; I looked over at the car. At the wheel, eyes closed and head slightly slumped, was a fairly elderly man. There are a number of retirement communities in the area, and the car could have been headed back from the supermarket up the road back toward home. It had been raining, and now there was a sheen as the sun came out: kids were walking home from school, cars kicked up spray. The officers and crossing guard did not look anxious, as if they were waiting for an ambulance. Perhaps they had not determined what was wrong. The man's face was quite visible to me across the road: he was comfortably dressed, looked like flannel and a jacket; his skin had the pale softness that the old often have; pale lashes, red gone to grey. He had a cap on; some grey hair. It was a beautiful afternoon and the sun glowed on his skin, the closed eyes, the tilted head. The car was pulled over neatly onto the shoulder, perfectly straight, wheels aligned. Perhaps, I imagined, he felt something coming on, a diabetic sugar low, pulled over and had time to communicate and is now just resting. I hoped, but I saw no movement, nor did I see the officers attempting to get him out of the car. The scene was very quiet, a pause where only the slushing of car tires kept any rhythm at all.

I hoped, but as the light changed and traffic began its slow advance up the hill, I had such a powerful image of an old man, feeling well enough, gone to market in his little sporty car, all set for home, and then--- And then. Perhaps it was because I was on the last leg of my commute, having imagined for miles the cookies and tea I would soon be savouring, but the idea that he had gone out for a simple errand, had left his house, looked at the things that comforted him and that he loved, perhaps was already imagining returning to, was unshakable for quite some time. For a brief moment, as my car passed out of view of his, I wondered if a cat was waiting for him at home, a spouse, a loyal dog. How short life is; out for an errand, and you're gone. I've known people who have had terrible, protracted deaths, others who knew it was coming, others suddenly gone. Not the point to debate the merits of each here, and no point in that, really, at all. I don't know what happened to him; no has story appeared in the paper. I wonder, did he get to go home again ? For the sake of that gentle, sun-touched face, I hope so.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Stand in Awe

and sin not; commune with your own heart upon thy bed. And be still.

For the record, I am Episcopalian, so ecumenical as might be construed as heretical, sometime church-going. It may be that nostalgia for the beauty of the King James, the comforting familiarity of ritual have as much or more to do with my religious self than any firm sense of God (or god, or gods). I do not struggle with this. This little bit of Psalm Four, though, stumbled upon a few years ago, often presents itself to me in times high emotion, good or bad. I realize that I have tried to make it, stripped of any particular theology, a rule for living: awe is not a bad stance, a transmutation of fear or surprise into something more conciliatory. "Sin not:" don't do what you shouldn't. And communing with one's heart covers sleep lost to anxiety, thanks before sleep, dreams of all kinds. It is the last that is the hardest: how to be still, when and how to quiet one's soul.

And so this question has come to me recently. Things are tense at the job I do not like; cuts are imminent, and I am practical enough to appreciate an unloved job that brings financial security as opposed to no job. Which brings us to this post's real topic: fear, the taste of fear. I mean this literally. I had no sense of this until about five years ago, when I was suddenly and cruelly upended by someone --- by several people, but someone in particular--- in whom I had placed much trust. The result of my loss was shattering, and physical: a long-distance and excellent driver since I got my license, I could not go through an intersection, even on a green light, without fearing that cars would suddenly come across. I did not trust cars to stay in their lanes, and even now I tense when I see a car waiting to enter the roadway, so shaken has been my sense of how reality operates. And there were ---and are--- physical sensations, face feeling hot, body feeling weak, a buzz in the ears, and most of all, a strange and lingering taste in my mouth that has returned as late, one that, when I first tasted it, took months to identify: fear. The taste of fear.

Having read about it in novels, accepted the phrase as a reality with no experience of it, I found it in my own mouth. I do not think I can do better than the clich├ęs I have encountered: a tang, an odd metallic flavor tinged with bitterness, no dry mouth required, though often present. When I was younger, though I had occasions that ought to have begotten it (such as, e.g. having a gun aimed at me by someone who thought my lover was sleeping with his wife. Yes.), that taste did not come to me. Other anxieties, less dramatic, but certainly worthy of it, deaths in the family, not getting a wanted position, nose-diving in an airplane, did not awaken it. My young self perhaps had other options: anxiety shaped itself into lustful desires, high states of excitement, tolerance for alcohol, long walks through various cities in the night, depression, aches in the legs. I wonder now if this taste of fear comes with age and/or with an internal clock that tracks an evolutionary urge for survival. For example, I'm quite sure young people serving in Iraq have tasted fear. Younger than myself, they've found it can't be washed away by cigarettes or beer, I've no doubt. Extreme situations would find their way to a primal response. But for myself and others who have led relatively unextreme lives, I wonder if this mechanism, this taste, presents itself with age. Should I say mechanism ? I don't know what it would have me do but swish my tongue and feel anxious. The peculiar tang is no mystery: it is adrenaline. Maybe in youth it channels itself into alternate forms of action; in middle age, its presence seems far less veiled: danger it calls, warning. Middle age, like it or not, not as many chances. The primitive ---or primal--- brain isn't fooled by "you're as young as you feel" stuff. Fight or flight drips down my throat, a raw bitter substance whose alchemy seems to depend more and more on the force of my conscious will than any subconscious interpretation and transmutation of it. Itaque haec habent. It's a simple question I wanted to articulate in this post: does fear present itself to us more physically as we age/run through one too many encounters ? Does this arise out of a deeply ingrained survival mechanism of our species ? If so, how to act on it, how, as we began, to be still ?

All double entrendre intended in this last---

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


File under "heirlooms, one:"

This weekend, I inadvertently celebrated Candlemas in a very traditional way. Due to the sheer arduousness of recent weeks, I had left a few Christmas decorations here and there, especially my small collection of reindeer decorations: among which, a beautifully painted hobby-horse style toy that sits on the mantle, and a silver candelabra in whose antlers tea lights may be placed. The most precious is pictured below, the the photo does not do it justice, and as soon as I can find and scan in a better photo, this sentence and the current image will disappear.

This "electric candelabra," which is made of, it seems, wrought iron with plastic candles, is, I realized, my true and only family heirloom. Worth little economically as far as I can tell, these little reindeer pre-existed me and were part of our family's Christmas throughout my childhood. They are the bearers of a love story: on their first Christmas as a married couple, 1960, my parents, not yet my parents, my mother, thirty two and father , forty three, having met , fallen in love and married after prior and separately enduring divorces, were walking down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn when they saw these reindeer in a shop window. They took it back to their apartment on Clinton Avenue, and it was lovingly assembled and lit every Christmas season thenceforth, with the story of its origin repeated with every unpacking. Looking closely, you will see that time has made its mark on this set: the plastic "halos" are dulled and slightly scratched; one Christmas, the middle deer lost its antlers, and in spite of my father's efforts to restore them, became a doe instead. Of late, the sleigh runner has fallen off each Christmas, and super glue seems to hold it for the season only. When my parents retired and moved to another house, I returned one Christmas and did not see the reindeer. In the new house, its traditional place on the harvest table not easily replicated by the new dining room table, it had remained packed in the box. I remember mentioning several times that I missed the reindeer, and my parents offered to send it to me by post when I returned home. A few weeks after I flew home, a box arrived in the mail: the reindeer in their original packing box, with a note from my father retelling the story of that Christmas Eve on Myrtle Avenue. I never saw my father again after that Christmas: he died in September of that same year, and so when I take out the reindeer every year, and unfold the note, now preserved in archival sheeting, but still tucked in the box, there is a moment of such poignancy, of stillness, a sacred (if I may) connection between my mental image of my young parents in Brooklyn and the onward rush of lives and years. Childless, I ponder the fate of my heirloom as I unwrap, then later disassemble the deer from the base, and rewrap in fresh newspaper, this object most precious to wait another year.

This year, this weekend, the rewrapping of the reindeer took place on Candlemas, though only later was I reminded of the old saying that Christmas decorations not put away by Epiphany should wait until Candlemas. Candlemas is the traditional day for the church's blessing of the candles to be used later in the liturgical year, so it seemed right all around that that my private ritual had accidently taken place on that day. This weekend, I also realized with much misgiving that the original box (pictured below) will not last many more years. The box, also part of the story, the ritual, the beautiful glowing reindeer made in Saint Joseph, MO --anexotic place to my New Yorker parents--- to Brooklyn, is crumbling, more packing tape than box. Everything else except the bulbs, is original, made to last: the wiring with its two-prong plug, the little cardboard pieces that keep the halos around the candles. The box will be gone in a few years, and I will have to pack the reindeer, my father's note, and the year's Christmas cards in a new container, and the wiring may go, too (so far so good, and that can be redone). I will probably not have children at this point, though in my dreams and in my body, it is still possible. I have niece, and many years from now, the reindeer may go to her, but for now, and I hope many seasons, the two bucks, a doe and a sleigh, four wobbly electric candles, rest on their iron stand and mean the world to me.