17 March 2013

More Light

On the horizon, spring. Freezing nights but days of thaw, laying bare mud that seems as cheering and delectable as cake batter. I feel as though I am about to graduate from something — to conclude or to start on some endeavor, although viewed soberly my days appear as settled and as uniform in measure as they have ever been. My mind does not rest on my work; it flits up from its branch every minute or so for a better view of what's in the air, returning wind-ruffled. (I began writing this from work; now it's Sunday and the house is full of unaccomplished chores, but the thing is that crocuses and daffodils have thrust their blades through the earth overnight.) I listen to a radio story about two brothers crossing America on horseback; their Southern accents sound drunk with fresh air and adventure, and the sweetness of their banter stings my eyes. I page through apartment listings urgently as though our building had just burned down, although there is nothing very wrong with our current place, we'll keep it if we find nothing better, the lease runs through May, and we aren't planning to travel outside a two-mile radius even so. I stay up too long, fueled by the new late light, and go to bed feeling as though I very likely will not have to go to work tomorrow; it will just happen that way, like a snow day but the opposite of that.

At night, unrolling like sod down the length of my dreams, is land. I have been lately to the Pacific coast and down strange ravines, but mostly I have been to my grandparents' 40 acres in the Michigan woods. I have gone there so long and so often in sleep that as a young child I sometimes failed to discern where, precisely, stood the glass of the mirror between the waking and the dreaming forest. I'd ask, for instance, to be brought again to the little brick church we had found back behind the Yoohoo House (that is, the old outhouse, fixed up, scrawled with camouflage spray paint, and transported from the back yard to the top of the knoll we generously called the sledding hill, to serve as a deer blind and playhouse), which I believed I had visited a couple of years before, in a near-infancy that would explain the haziness of the memory. This sort of thing happened a couple of times with locations in the city, too, but my dreams more often overlaid their maps across the woods. Now, even if sleep sets me down in some stranger landscape, I often will still wander back there, to the east meadow, the west meadow, the swamp, the crick, the frog spring — no matter if I have to pass an alpine lake or flowering gorge along the way.

All winter my mind has seemed dull, its thoughts thudding into existence like the muddy bass coming from my downstairs neighbor's stereo. Too well insulated by snow clouds and city buildings and work to receive the slightest breeze. In memory, last winter slushes into this one without regard for the months between; May, for instance, seems like something I'd read about a couple years back but never experienced firsthand. I am eager to finally see it for myself.

There is a time of day that's routinely wrecked me for as long as I can remember: three or four o'clock in the afternoon, the point at which the day seems to have reached maximum saturation. An unreasoning dread (though reason would concur, were it roused) settles into place in the gut—a dread verging on certainty that the ensuing decay will continue not just until the morning but forever, the sun slowly going dead rather than swinging away for a few hours. But now, just past the time change, there is a little reprieve: suddenly, an extra hour of daylight that makes the evening seem near enough to eternal. When I awaken from my work in the late afternoon to note this fact, joy swells in me. It's hard to keep to myself — I want to go around informing people about it, this extra light, as though it were good news they might not have seen yet. Yeah, I don't know if you heard, but it turns out all of this is free! And, get this — tomorrow there'll be even more.

It feels good to sometimes be unable to bear the length of the day solely because it's blocking me from tearing into the next one, like a child on a perpetual Christmas Eve. At the same time, I do not actually want time to move faster at all, not by a single breadth of the needle. Since I reached my middle twenties I have been more and more distressed by the relentless speed that has got into things, got there without even the compensating thrill of perceptible acceleration. My mother beamingly repeated a joke she'd learned from one elderly patient at the medical office where she works and used with success on another, about life being like a roll of toilet paper, getting used up faster at the end; I could not laugh as convincingly as she'd have liked. Perhaps this generally troubles us less as we get older, past a certain point; that would be a mercy.

I could not laugh so well partly because my grandmother is getting genuinely old now. She was in her early forties when I was born; throughout my childhood, the white-haired, bosomy grannies who populated picture books with their cookies and crinkly smiles shared nothing with her except a more limited version of her skill set. She accompanied us up mountains and down alongside waterfalls on vacations; she fished and hunted; she was bottomlessly kind and utterly unsentimental, of a sharp and original cast of mind (despite thinking of herself as fundamentally unintelligent from childhood, having been very slow in school). She shocked me one night on a camping trip in Ontario — the stars brighter than I have ever seen and the moon so huge and clear over Lake Superior that we could actually see it move upward, like a boat or balloon or any old thing — by remarking, in an offhand way and in connection to some mundane matter I've forgotten, that she did not believe that people went anywhere special after they died, they went into the earth and that was that. I was still a little religious; I think I was twelve; the black night under the trees back inside the pop-up camper seemed suddenly to have more the ring of truth about it than the dazzling moonrise we'd just watched.

This is how I think of her, and this is why lately it is hard to call her on the phone: she repeats stories I've already heard three times, she asks me the same questions, there are tiny gaps after I speak where she must pause and either work to understand what I've just said or work to pretend she understands what I've just said — and, most terrifyingly, she is becoming sentimental. Her love for me has never been in doubt, but it has never been very demonstrative; that is not how it's done in our family. But she misses me, she says now, in every conversation and email; she says she is proud of me for "all that I've accomplished" (and god knows what that is; previously she would have had no doubt that so far I've done nothing of consequence — which knowledge would of course have had no impact on her esteem for me); she has even hinted that I ought to come visit her soon. And that edges so close to an admission of need it sends chills down my spine. You go down the usual dirt road, climb the usual little hill, and the little brick church is not where you expected; there is not even any sign that it has been torn down. Until now, you had not thought to wonder why you were so certain it was there.

I should, in fact, go visit. Why not in the spring? The land will be lively; there will be miles of country roads for me and the winds to gust down; I can ask the names of birds and flowers, and request to hear again old stories I loved as a kid, stories we both know I have heard a dozen times. Why not wring all the light we can from this sense of quickening in the air?