Go, Went, Gone

The week between Christmas and New Year’s always has me feeling a little in limbo. The twelve days of Christmas that underscore the holiday lore baffle me (though I’ll sing along for fun). As a Jewish woman, I have my eight days of Chanukah to lift and light my spirit.  But it’s this seven-day countdown, from a day that blurs boundaries between the religious and secular world in which we live to a day that simply announces the passing of one year into another, that has me on edge.

My ability to work during this week is on shaky ground.  I can’t focus in the consistent way I’m used to.  Clearing out papers, going through files, updating computers—that’s how my time in this week of limbo feels best spent.  Is this an idea worthy of a blog post? I ask myself. Can I find the time—between divesting, going to a movie or two, thinking about what I need for weekend guests—to just get it written?

I’ve written before about the unsettling feeling during the week when one year ends and another begins. Something that hits this profoundly every year can’t be denied. It’s as if this week—this very week—is riddled with expectation of something to come. So much distress in the past year, there’s the thinking that any new year has to be better.

Go, Went, Gone

Three words, the title of Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, speak volumes about culture, politics, and language itself. As perfect a novel as it gets, the story line finds a retired professor in Berlin caught up in the plight of a group of refugees. Midway through the novel comes Christmas. As New Year’s Eve arrives, Richard, the professor, reflects on what it means:

He’s never quite understood what’s supposed to be departing in that final decisive second, while at the same time something new—something you can’t know yet—suddenly presents itself. Sometimes in past years he’s tried to concentrate on this future that was apparently arriving at just this moment. But how do you concentrate on something you don’t know yet? Who’s going to die? Who’ll be born? The older he gets, the more grateful he is to have just as little idea as anyone else what is in store.

What’s in store for Richard is, ultimately, a change in the way he views the world as his relationship with the refugees grows. What’s in store for the refugees becomes a disheartening waiting game.  Time is not always on their side.  One person can only do so much.

Despite all that I’ve read about how the calendar has changed over the centuries (something I touch on in my forthcoming novel) the transition from one year to the next still can unsettle me.  For all I’ve come to trust about the changing nature of reality, the anticipation of something that’s to come can easily trigger anxiety. Good or bad, once the moment or event arrives, the anxiety dissipates.

And somehow, in the crunch of days between 2017 and 2018, I’ve managed to settle into the unsettled. It’s anyone’s guess what comes next.




One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

12/31/12: On the Edge

There invariably comes a moment at a Leonard Cohen concert when singer/songwriter gives way to pure poet.  The softer he speaks, the more closely you listen. It’s a marvel to me, hearing echoes of a song I love, words that were their own music before they would become a song. If the achingly gorgeous  “AIce Art Boot Thousand Kisses Deep” he sings with Sharon Robinson on Ten New Songs owes its genesis to a poem written years earlier, what could be a more fitting expression of the fluid nature of words than to recite them in the incarnation stripped bare of melody? Not that I don’t hear it.

Then there’s the song itself, which, according to Sylvie Simmons’s new, wonderful biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has a story of its own. As Rebecca De Mornay tells it, it’s a song he kept writing over and over, “like a painter who paints over his original painting that you loved, and paints a whole new painting on top of it, and then he paints a whole new one on top of that, and ten years later it exists on a record and doesn’t have a single note or word that’s the same as anything I heard when he first played the song.”

The other night words that seemed to be the beginning of something, maybe a poem, popped into to my head.  During this last week of the year, when time seems to both race ahead and stand still, I feel in a state of limbo.  A visit from my daughter makes very little else matter. More time with friends face-to-face means less time with friends on Facebook.  Even without saying it outright, a kind of taking stock of what I set out to do this past year, my own measures of success and failure, takes hold.  So much to put behind, so much more to look forward to.

You could be forgiven
      for wanting
To pack up the dream
Slip it into that swelling suitcase
    tucked under the bed  . . .

These words surface from some place in my consciousness just as Kevin Costner, young and handsome and in as high-definition as it gets on a television screen, is convinced that he has to clear away the corn on his farm in order to create a baseball field. It is a perfect moment of synchronicity for me. If another favorite holiday movie of mine, It’s a Wonderful Life, speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the singular fact of our existence  (not to mention the places that caring takes us), Field of Dreams speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the choices we make, and the edges that bring us to those choices.

To be ‘on edge’ is worlds apart from being ‘on an edge.’  An edge is a door, a threshold, a tightrope, the perfect fold of a towel. A precipice on which I stand, or sit, staring into a chasm. A surfboard teetering on a wave. Standing tall on water skis, holding on, not for dear life so much as to steady myself.  Once you think about falling, you topple over.

Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Amy Madigan) invite Shoeless Joe Jackson into their home after he has played some ball on the magical field wrought of leveled corn.  The camera pans down to his shoes pointed toward the line in the dirt, the edge, the place where the field ends and the rocky path of the real world is drawn.  He stops dead in his tracks. He cannot cross over.

Later in the movie the younger incarnation of  Doc ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) has come to play baseball on this field of second chances. Karin Kinsella, the daughter of Ray and Annie, is lying on the ground, the air knocked out of her from a fall while chewing on a hot dog. The camera zooms in on a young Archie Graham. He can be forgiven what seems a moment of youthful hesitation but the cards really are stacked. Going back in time does not mean changing the course of his life for that glorious sound of bat hitting ball. The choice he made the first time around – to become a doctor – was not so much choice as calling.  He crosses over. Saves the girl.

The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.

To be ‘on edge’ is to be in a state of contraction, riddled with anxiety, uncertainty. One word, one syllable, an article as indefinite as it gets, makes the phrase breathe, infuses it with possibility.  A poem, “Thousand Kisses Deep,” becomes a song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” When I am on edge, disappointment over what is not calls into question all the good that is. When I am on an edge – slippery or smooth, rocky or foggy – bidding  one year good-bye means nothing more than ringing in a new one.

Photo copyright © Christine Boyka Kluge