It is one week from Christmas Eve, and I walk Nelly along the road at dusk. New snow has fallen and it is too deep for her to negotiate; not that she can no longer leap like a fox, but at her age she can leap and land, leap and land only in short bursts, not for the duration of the long wanders in the woods we once took.
Her bounding happily, seemingly forever. Nothing is forever.
Yesterday a DJ on the radio, obviously a relative youngster, referred to a lyric that ran, and here I paraphrase, We’re all going to die sometime. He remarked with a laugh it is of course true. Yes, I thought, but not for you. You don’t really believe it yet. No one really can until it is about to come true, like a wish made manifest. The gifts that appear under the tree overnight. The ones I can picture in my mind’s eye at this moment under the crystal-laden tree my mother decorated in the old house on Ridgecrest Road in Akron, the home long gone in reality but never in my yearning. Especially come December.
I wonder if Nelly feels nostalgia for all she used to do. I wonder if she feels nostalgia for her sight, also gone. Today when vacuuming the living room I moved a table off the rug. She walked into it. Startled, she looked at me (or toward me; I must be precise) with such upset. That table is not where it used to be! Which is as much as to say, Where it should be. It was not the arrangement she was accustomed to. Nostalgia in action.
I apologized, sought to comfort her. I told her we would go walk in a little while. My words of nglish were incomprehensible, ineffectual to her sense of order lost.
This is not the arrangement I am used to, either. This is a new house, a new road, a new view onto fields sweeping down to a ring of dark pines at the edge of sight. As we walked I thought about words—“crepuscular,” “swale”—that are now not used very much. I thought about the history I go past, seen and unseen. I bear nostalgia for language and in euqal measure for the overspilling hopes of youth. That is the way things “used to,” “should” be. I am nostalgic for the times I never felt nostalgia.
As we walk, past the Dutch stone house hand-built in Colonial times and then in a few steps past the one brought in two and a half centuries later on a truck in prefabricated pieces, I think about how we have gotten here. This moment, I mean, when we might be finally on the very edge of change that is more destructive than any will to destruction we—the species with destruction written in our DNA right next to “survive at all costs”—have previously evinced.
I had wandered in a desert for some years. Now I have a home in which I aim to stay a spell. One that provides new vistas onto hopes both future and past. “Dusk” is a good word too, one still current. It says much. Its sound in the mouth. It is a bridge between now—this moment, as Nelly and I pass evergreens decorated in crystals by the hand of the sky, as well as that big idea known as “the present moment”—and then. The past inhabited by personal ghosts and those of posterity. Such as the naturalist John Burroughs, not read too much anymore, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century a regular literary superstar, with 23 volumes to his widely known name. A half mile away from our house on this very road is the schoolhouse in which Burroughs taught at age seventeen, after his father refused to give him the money he requested for further education. Twenty years ago I had also left one home and found myself in another, close by Burroughs’s boyhood home. Now I’ve bought a house near his next stop. I feel we’re growing up together.
Ah, my friends. My mind is filled with shifting layers. It is ripe for an archaeological dig. Under this, that. And under that, more. Conflating, conflating. The longings I feel toward my past—childhood, with its sparkling hopes (inchoate, except for the very concrete wish for frosted cake on Christmas and the sight of hope itself under the tree on the morning: nothing measured up to the moment we attained the last step from upstairs and craned our necks to see what had been left overnight in piles of wrapped packages and bulging stockings)—is joined by strange yearnings for my child’s past. Yesterday I saw a train set in a store and reflexively thought of the speechless joy it will bring. Um, not anymore. The times are over when the dollar store could be relied on to provide magic in cheap quantity. We no longer read a story aloud the night before the big excitement (nor do we remember to put out milk and cookies and then nearly forget to take a couple of proof bites, either). No more recitation of “A Christmas Carol,” that tale of awakened compassion. We believed it possible. We believed it an annual certainty, in the same league as glittery white lights and a Droste dark chocolate apple in the toe of the stocking. A necessity of life.
But then, I also find myself—get ready for it—missing the times of tribulation. I miss my own sorrows with a sorrow of their own. It’s so intense it’s almost pleasurable. I remember everyplace I ever cried. I go by the places in Kingston I was so enchanted to discover in an another life and even though they’re still there they are like a sharp blow to the chest. I first spied that fading Coca-Cola ghost sign on the side of the brick building on Broadway in 2000. Seeing it in 2016 pierces me with sadness because I remember the prelapsarian joy it inspired. I know. This is odd. Makes me seem like I haven’t gotten over something. But I have. Really. I can’t really rouse a care about the cause of the unpleasantness. What’s left is enduring wonderment about the emotional crevasse that’s left even though the earthquake itself is forgotten.
Some pain is so intense it changes both inner and outer world. The nostalgic pinings I feel for my own sadness occur because I’m no longer sad, but at one time pain fused itself to these sights. Coming upon them now makes me remember. It is not the arrangement I am accustomed to.
Entering a place where the happy past remains frozen (an old email address that used to be everything but now I use for junk and rarely check) I am jolted. “Letters from Santa ™” and “Ride the Polar Express!” are sitting in the in-box from this week, although the person to whom they refer is now 6 foot 1. Here in hyperspace he remains smooth-cheeked and pick-up-able and I am the person who contacted Letters from Santa™ to surprise him.
Always the childlike hope. Then came the Fall, and hope was never quite the same. I had to use a crowbar to force hopefulness into my head, but goddammit I did. I picked up pennies wherever I saw them to remind myself how lucky I was. Even if, and precisely because, I did not particularly feel it then. I got a few dollars this way. I made special glasses for my eyes that willfully cut anything from the frame that did not look beautiful. It was work, satisfying and sweaty.
When the deflations of hope occurred, I kept them to myself. I said nothing about the Episode of the Treehouse. We had always wanted one. One appeared. A treehouse had magically come with the minuscule rental house—luck again!—and so came the day a little friend came over, and the two young friends decided to paint it (permission granted from the landlord; he was happy too, as it had been his son’s, long grown up) and I drove them to the store and let them pick three pints in shades of their own choosing. Then the friend never returned, the treehouse remained unpainted, and the treehouse was never visited again. I gave the paint away.
Why do I keep thinking about wolves? I mean the real ones. Waiting in the quiet north woods. They are no match for the wolves in human skin.
It came to me at birthday dinner the other night. Sitting in a subtly lit dining room next to the open fire, it must have put me in a colonial frame of mind. I was mad, and am mad, and am trying to understand this whole thing. I had trusted in the system of checks balances always. The grease that kept the gears of the nation moving sweetly, a miracle of mechanics. A free press. The veto power of the executive branch, and the legislative branch’s ability to override that veto with enough votes. Who thought this up? The concepts of the framers were informed by the world in which they lived, which was one where machines were made by hand. Problems were solved by mechanics. The men who made the Constitution were farmers and merchants, a cobbler, an astronomer, a blacksmith and self-taught lawyer and surgeon and candle-maker. Every one of the machines they used in daily life had its system of counterbalances; the carriages in which they traveled had brakes lest they run downhill over the horse. The gates through which they came and went swung closed because of a gravity ball: what went up when pushed came back down because of its weight. Largely hidden to us now, checks and balances were visible everywhere in their world.
When they conceived of how this nation might be governed equitably, they could only build a machine like the ones they themselves used every day. A system of gears, pulleys, weights and counterweights. They built the government that adhered to natural law, a beautiful engine.
It is one that seems to predict eventualities that could never have occurred to men of the eighteenth century, who had no idea this country would grow to the size and complexity it has. Handmade in their primitive time, the watchworks they set in motion still keeps perfect time.
Night falls softly around here. The sky is the biggest I have ever had. It is a dome in which the stars can’t be taken in without turning around, head thrown back, full pivot. I wake before the sun is fully up. I never quite catch the moment it does, because it is bent on doing what it does, which is for purposes far bigger than my eye. The sky moves like a watercolor in the moment the brush touches the wet surface.
Some say nostalgia is a great failing of the emotions, the intellect. I say it was born in love.
I am hinged to the present, and so I might swing to the past or the future depending on what comes in through the senses: dark pine, a shadow. The cold still held in the fur of my mother’s coat touching my face as she bends over me in bed and half-wakes me with a kiss upon coming home from a party late. All this history streaming through me like the ever-flowing Tongore Creek, by the side of which a great writer taught over a century and a half ago and which I can hear after a hard rain as I lie in bed in the present moment. Long may it run. I hope, I hope.
Happy new year.