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Essay

IN LATE OCTOBER I started painting the trim around the outside of the windows white. I finished the east and south sides of the house and moved my ladder to the west. The red leaves were falling from the sugar maple and the buckeyes from the buckeye tree, and the squirrels were making their strangely chaotic and impossible nests high up in a pin oak. In the winter, branches of the trees will glaze with ice and the wind will make limbs crash to the ground, but those nests three stories up will toss and blow but not fall, glued to the sky with spit and mud and sticks and leaves. If the trees themselves fell, I believe the nests would stay in the air. No matter how much battering they take, I have never seen one on the ground.

I use a yoga mat when I sit on the ground to paint the bottom sash of the windows, and sometimes I just lie on my back and look up into all that blue. There’s paint now on the yoga mat because I’m a careless painter, and so the mat will now be used only for outdoor chores. I’m more likely, anyway, to paint the sash and picket fence than to do yoga, though I do roll over and up into downward dog whenever I stand. Much easier than relying on the knees to lift me. I am that old now.

An army of ladybugs rises up from somewhere and suddenly I’m sitting in a swarm of them. October still, the sky a desert blue, the yellow leaves of the maple tree as bright as aspens. The only time of year the sky looks like Santa Fe in the center of the gauzy-skied industrial Midwest, where our bluest skies are grayed out.

The bugs stick to the freshly painted sash and some of them fall into the open can. Their scarab backs, the paint-soaked wings. I take the paint brush and try to pick them out but there are too many of them. I will need a sifter or a colander or a fresh bucket of paint in order to finish this job. I try to remove the bugs from the sash, but the paint film has started to form and I decide the best thing to do is wait until it is fully dry and then scrape and sand.

I’m trying to decide whether to keep working. Not on the sash or fence, but the work I’m paid to do during the week. I’ve been doing this work for over forty years. It went by like nothing. Just a few weeks ago I was a new teacher and now I’m an old one. I know people always say this, but it’s true that time goes faster every year. When I was young I didn’t realize the thing that every older person knows, that each year in a life is a smaller percentage of the whole. When a year is one twelfth of your life, it feels different than when it’s one sixty-fifth. And time was always about feeling anyway. Boredom, anticipation, the timelessness of ecstasy. I could die now, you say when you feel that timelessness. Because why? Because it’s forever you’ve discovered, and in forever, nothing really dies. I can jump back into the memory of the few moments I’ve felt like that, but I can’t make them come back or will them to happen again. They’re momentary flashes of peace bookended by a different kind of moment, those anxious ones that contain an awareness of past and future, of striving.

A week ago the Boy Scout who lives next door came walking up our driveway with his wreath order form and I almost screamed at him. Too early! You were just here! It had been a year since he made that same walk, but it felt less like a current event than like déjà vu. He was a year older, of course, but he looked the same to me.

I’m better at some things now than I was when I was a young woman, and I’m worse at others.

If every day were an October day, when I could lie on my back and look up through the tangle of yellow leaves, or if every day were late May and I could look up at the cottonwood seeds appearing out of the same blue sky like white sparks floating down toward me, I would never want to work.

But soon the muscles cramp and the body needs to move or clouds appear in the blue or there’s hunger or thirst (why?) even as the eyes want to drink it in. Isn’t this enough? I could die now.

 

In August the hummingbird’s body looked emaciated until it sucked in the red sugar water and its belly grew big. The belly is a balloon full of liquid sugar, and the bird works to fly its belly through the air. Where does the bird take its belly? To another feeder, perhaps, where it will once again get its fill. Or, in the absence of a feeder, to a field of red flowers. Or in the absence of a flower, to the red rope hanging from the garage door mechanism in my open garage.

 

How funny that we have a mom like this, my daughter says, who will just lie there on the deck watching cottonwood seeds descend.

 

To whom do I express my gratitude? I have arthritis pain in my knee that makes it hard to climb stairs, and a thickening in the belly like my Polish great-aunts. Sometimes at night I grab hold of my stomach flesh and think how odd it is now that it sags in this droopy water-balloon way. This is new, this soft, drooping doughy flesh on the belly and the face. Oddly interesting to me. Horrifying, I’m sure, to my daughter when she looks at me. But I have all the time in the world, I think (as I’ve thought for three decades), to figure out how to write the type of book I’ve thought I should be writing until recently, when I realized that I’ve written the type of books I could. I say it doesn’t matter, but it does. I’ll do it next week, I say, as I’ve said for thirty years. I am not resigned, though I wish I could be. Tomorrow I will do sit-ups. Tomorrow I will write the novel. Tomorrow it will be November.

The sky is white. It presses at the windows. The gutters are filling with pine needles and with leaves. The only sounds are a metallic rain on the roof, the dog’s sigh, an occasional car passing on the wet road, my own breathing, the slight ringing in my ears, the existential hum. Winter is settling in. It’s dark at five o’clock and we haven’t even had the shortest day. If I died on this day, I would die unhappy. What’s the source of this feeling? It’s clear I have no boundaries between my heart and the weather. It snows. It rains. It is dreary. It’s clear that somehow I believe that the soul, on the day of death, is joined to the atmosphere. Released into joy or drear. I will do nothing to deserve either the paradise or the purgatory. One or the other, bound by barometric pressure and cold fronts from Canada. It’s all luck. Your fears are signposts to your beliefs, I fear.

 

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, memorized the catechism. What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

But I just realized that when I hear someone say the word Jesus I flinch, like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. I remember the picture of Jesus knocking at the entrance to what I thought of as a cave with a rounded door. I recently looked at the picture again, that staple of children’s Bibles, and it wasn’t a cave at all, just a stone house with roses and vines covering it so that your eye goes only to the wooden door and the man in a robe, carrying a light but also emanating it, knocking at what was supposed to be the door to the heart.

But the analogy never worked for me. Behind the door was not the heart but a cave, something dank and dark, and I wasn’t on the inside of that door. I was outside watching the long-haired gentle man bring the lantern he was holding to someone else’s home. If anyone answered the door (and no one ever did) that someone would find all of us who were viewing the picture standing outside, each of us carrying our own secret locked-up heart.

I think I’ve always believed that a name for something so large we can’t imagine it is too limiting. Whenever I’ve heard the word Jesus come from someone’s mouth it’s been with too strong an accent on the first syllable, used as a sort of weapon. Jesus. Jesus. At funerals for family members in my husband’s southern Indiana, we’re told that the departed, the one we remember for his kindness or love of fishing or for the way he helped us fix a toy, is now in heaven because he loved Jesus.

If so, in the case of my husband’s uncle, this had been a hidden love. He loved his wife and nieces and nephews and he loved dogs (in his nineties he would make his way through snow and ice to feed the dogs his next-door neighbor kept locked outside, unfed) and he loved a good beer and he loved hunting for mushrooms, but this other love? He must have thought of this other love as shameful, or (more likely) the minister was lying, but to whom? Himself? The family? To God? On his deathbed, would my husband’s uncle have said I pretended to love this world but really all along I loved Jesus? And if he had, what did the word signify to him? The word Jesus seemed like a sweet word to a child, a word adults outgrow. He loves me this I know.

I think I may know complicated ways I could answer this question if I wanted to, but I don’t want to right this minute. I think of mystery and metaphor, the fact that words show where the ineffable is hiding; they coat it like papier-mâché around a balloon, the pneuma. But I truly want to know what the word signifies to those I love and respect who use it without irony. Perhaps if I just substitute the word Christ or Lord or Mystery, or if I could say it in another language, I could understand.

 

The Red Key Tavern in Indianapolis, Indiana, on a Sunday night. A glass of wine with one of my smartest friends. He is eighty-four years old, tells stories about James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron and Amiri Baraka and Joan Didion. He used to live in New York, and for a while in California. These are writers I admire beyond belief, so if you’re not a writer and the names don’t mean anything to you, substitute your own pantheon of gods and put yourself in this bar with model planes hanging on threads from the ceiling and an old jukebox playing forties tunes, and imagine hearing stories about your gods (of sports, film, politics) from someone who knew them.

Once when he was lost, my friend says, a minister told him that every day he should spend at least five minutes with Jesus.

And so he did, and during those times, he said, he was no longer lost.

I don’t know what to say to this, so I ask, What does that mean, please? Is it the same as meditating?

No, he says. It is like but not the same as.

Did you feel a connection with something? I ask him.

I did, he says.

Was it like being filled with light? I ask.

Once, when he was a child, he felt the whole world become light and felt filled with it and knew, he has written, that it was God. For years he thought he was crazy. When he read William James in college, he realized that he wasn’t crazy.

And so, during the five minutes, does it feel like that?

It does not, he says. He only felt the light that one time. Others have felt that light, he says. You feel it once and it’s enough to last you.

So is it the God you experienced when you were young that that you pray to, spend time with in those five minutes? I ask, and the waitress brings another round.

No, he says. It’s Jesus.

And again, I wonder what he means.

The next day I realize that I have never once in my life believed there is anyone present on the other end of that particular phone line.

And oddly, somehow, I’m surprised by this.

 

My mother used to tell me she believed in God, and I would ask her how she knew, and she would say you felt it in your chest, around your heart.

I can say I’ve felt that feeling around the heart. It is a familiar way I experience longing. No words, no images. Only longing. A kind of homesickness. A fullness in the heart with a faith that what is longed for will be found. It’s right there, within reach. I can’t attach a word to it.

 

December. It’s snowing, and there are balls of white on the rhododendron bushes. They look like hydrangeas or peonies. My husband has hung red Christmas ornaments on the Japanese maple. The leaves are still hanging on even though it’s December, and they are a velvety red underneath the white snow.

I have a friend who is red-green color blind.

If you show me a color that is red or green I will actually see a gray, he says. But if I am told it is green, I see green.

Does the green you see look different from the gray, I ask, and if so, how? I know you can’t explain it, I add. I’m sorry. I just love colors so much. Cobalt blue is my favorite, I think. Though I love fuchsia. And kelly green. And emerald, I say. All the gemstone colors.

You know how you can draw stairs one way and how they can be switched around, or you can look at a drawing and see a face or a pitcher? It’s like that.

That makes sense, I say. Thank you.

That’s why I like yellow though, he says. Because I can see yellow. And blues. And grays. I like purples too, he says, but I can’t see the red in them. Orange, he says, not so much.

Was one of your parents color blind? I ask. Your brother?

My mother’s father was completely color blind, he says. All grays.

So orange must look like a kind of yellow to you? I ask. You’re not missing a lot with orange, I say. And your children? Are they color blind?

They have it a little, he says. It’s a spectrum thing.

Color means so much to me, I say. I can’t imagine not seeing it.

 

Is this work I’m doing here enough for the years remaining to me? Asking questions? Looking through the window as the seasons change? Never coming to conclusions?

 

Yesterday I visited my stepmother. She is in her eighties, like my friend in the Red Key. Her daughter, my stepsister, is depressed, and it’s breaking my stepmother’s heart.

Years ago the daughter worked at a bread factory. It did not feed her soul. She couldn’t wait to retire. She retired with disability. Her husband, too, is on disability. Everyone in southern Indiana is on disability. First the work and then the injury from the work and then the years doing nothing and always the despair.

They live in the country. In the fall the hay is baled and it turns silver in the sunlight. There is nothing more beautiful, my stepsister once said to me, than those rolls of hay in autumn.

If she could spend hours with that silver, I think, out in that sun, she wouldn’t be so unhappy. But you can only spend a minute with that feeling and then the past and then the future intrude. Winter comes. The hay bales blacken. The sky descends like a coffin lid. Despair.

My stepsister lost her nephew and her brother to addiction. The nephew died first, just outside his father’s door at the apartment complex. The father found his son in the morning, lifeless. The boy was almost home.

The brother was good at operating machinery, but he lost his license and couldn’t drive. He rode a scooter to work for a while until the work dried up and before his liver failed. Inside the body, the liver works and the heart works and the blood moves.

My stepmother lost my father, her husband. Sometimes when she mentions him she begins sobbing. She has a great-great-granddaughter she loves. The girl is only four, and smart, and there are the girl’s dolls in the kitchen, a wooden rocking chair in front of the Christmas tree. My stepmother hands me things every time I visit. This crystal was your grandmother’s, she says. This clock was your great-aunt’s. This is part of a kimono your great-uncle brought to the states from Japan, in 1927.

My stepmother is preparing to die. She’s drawing up a new will. Does she still at some level feel that she will live forever though? And if she doesn’t, when did that feeling end?

She loves the four-year-old girl. The girl’s sweet face is framed on every surface. No one knows the name of the girl’s father. The girl’s mother is special needs. The girl’s grandmothers are in despair. The grandfathers are in despair. The despair has nothing to do with the girl at all. No cause and effect, just hopelessness. All the adults who will lead this little girl through her one and only life are preparing, hoping, to die.

 

So is it like a vision of silver in the middle of the country, on a sunny day? I ask my friend. That spending time, is it like the moment with the silver?

Almost, he says, but not quite.

If my stepsister could be convinced to sit for five minutes with that vision and pry it open long enough to crawl through and escape from hell, would she not feel lost? Would there be things worth doing? For two decades, she’s been addicted to pain pills. Is it too late for her now to pry that space open long enough to crawl through into paradise?

 

My husband went to a college reunion over the weekend and talked to one of his college friends who has never had a job because he’s rich. He never married. He never had children. He builds a house for himself and then moves into another. He loves to gossip. He seems metallic to me, his skin an odd shade of grayish white. His hair is too perfect, his clothes otherworldly. He seems embalmed. What does he do with his life? What has he done? Perhaps he’s done things unspeakable. Perhaps he is one of the undead. Why was he born?

No matter. What will I do if I’m no longer teaching? I’ll find something, I’m sure. And I’m old. That’s not the point; it’s the catalyst for thinking. The point is what do we do when there is no work? What will we do? I mean this for all of us because it seems as though we’re heading there eventually. If we can spread the resources around, keep from killing each other. If there is no cataclysmic end-of-the-world scenario, no fire, no ice, what will we do with our time? Will we spend it singing? Will we spend it shopping or entertaining ourselves once everything is mechanized? Will we spend it in praise of something, and if so, what will that be? Will the door to the cave open and the light flood out or in?

 

Last week I went to a meeting in a nineteenth-century house. The wooden floors were hand-inlaid with a Greek key pattern, handmade nails. The balusters were intricately carved. The lace curtains were not machine made. I don’t mean to be a luddite or nostalgic for a simpler time, became the time that produced this house was not simpler. It simply took more time to make. The brick sidewalk laid in a herringbone pattern. The woodwork carved by hand. It was not an artist who designed the floor’s pattern, it was a craftsman who had different designs to work with, who had hours of time to lay the boards straight. The craftsman was not needed to spend time at the malls or online, consuming, keeping the economy humming. He had his work to do. As long as he could do this work, could pay attention to the grain in each board, each mitered corner, was he spending time with God?

 

It is cold. December 13, the feast of Saint Lucia. In Scandinavia young girls in white dresses carry candles to dispel the darkness. I drive home from my night class. I am so lucky, I tell myself again, to have spent my life doing a thing I love. It was a class in reading for writers. We read James Baldwin and Alice Munro and Chekhov and O’Connor and Joyce. We looked at the grain in each board, each mitered corner, the handling of point of view and time. So much life in the eyes of the students. Such incandescent souls.

Lucy means light. Luminous. Luminescent. There are no stars in the sky tonight, but a large white moon. I drive by the hardware store with its collection of trees, and I am drawn to the colors. It’s always the blue lights that I love, but only in contrast to the trees filled with different colors. Color is only our perception of different lengths of light waves.

The girl Lucy, before she became a saint, is said to have descended into the catacombs to bring food to the Christian martyrs. That’s one story. She wore a wreath on her head, with candles, like a Victorian Christmas tree or a miner’s lamp. This helped her find her way in the cave, and she carried food and water in her hands. I’m not sure where I heard that story, really, because there’s the other story, the more common one, that her eyes were gouged out and she was burned for her faith but she didn’t burn and her eyes were restored. Her faith was synonymous, somehow, with the preservation of her virginity. I like the first story better, Lucy as light-bringer in the darkness. Moving through the world still in the guise of hummingbird and cottonwood seed and four-year-old girl and sky and sunlit hay. I can spend time with this girl. She is not tarnished for me. In the candlelight, in the color blue, in lamplight on an open book, I think I see her.


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