codes so subtle that they change their whole meaning in half a line

A year and a day ago we packed up our car and drove to Vermont. For a day it was spring and then for a long while it was winter. That period feels like the airclay I got my son: you can mound it up or flatten it out or stretch it loooong. A year in a day and a day in a year. 

My son carries around a specific tube wherever he can. It’s orange, transparent, with grey clasps at either end for the vacuum head and handle to click in — but most of the time, it’s just a tube. My son calls it his stick. The stick goes in the car to school, though not into school. It goes sledding and on night walks and, in moments of my own absentmindedness, to the playground. Once, it made it into the grocery store. Every night it gets tucked into bed, clenched tight in my son’s fist. He sleeps through the night, but if he doesn’t, it’s because he’s dropped the stick. At times, the stick exasperates me — it’s too long to be jammed in a pocket; on the rope ladder at the playground, it is a perilous handicap, and WOE TO ME if it’s ever misplaced. Other times, it is merely perplexing. It has no interesting textural elements, makes no noise, is not aesthetically notable in any way. On its own, it is not an approximation or miniature version of some coveted adult object. It is just a tube. 

And yet. It is a constant. Friends of ours gave it (in its vacuum entirety) to our son soon after his brother was born. The months that followed brought four different schools and three moves, a revolving door of supporting cast members that included, for a time, five cows and a calf and two horses and an eager yellow lab. They gaveth a patch of earth in which to dig and taketh the daily reverb of excavators and cranes. They gaveth a driveway plenty long enough for biking and taketh Fort Greene Park. They gaveth an apple orchard and taketh nearly all ethnic diversity, including of the culinary sort. And through it all, they kept the stick be. 

If I learned anything from Lost, it was that you don’t mess with constants. They hold the logic of a universe together. 

My younger son has no stick, either of the literal or figurative variety. For him, I suppose we, his family, are constants enough. 

Me, I’m puttering on. The upheaval of last spring and summer are far enough in the rearview mirror for a sort of settled feeling to have crept it, though there is a stronger awareness that this phase, too, shall pass. In another year, will I still be zooming for hours on end from my periwinkle hobbit office? I doubt it. I no longer long for the old life — it was the second child, not the pandemic, that made doing so ridiculous. But it’d be nice to go into an office once in a while, to wear a blazer without feeling like I was dressing up, to buy a coffee for the pleasure of walking to get it. Nice to have more compartmentalized selves. 

It’d be nice to have more built-in time to read, too. I forget where I read that New York was a city of readers, but it’s stuck with me and it’s true. There’s nothing like getting so lost in what you’re reading that the creaky, crowded world around you dissolves entirely. 

Now I read at night, just before bed, when any potential synapses have been long-since banked, and any compulsion to press on has to battle with the sophorific environment, the comforter and low light and candles in the window. Compound that with magnesium and half a unisom and the jet-laggy sensations of pregnancy and any book has an uphill battle. 

The answer, of course, is to pick a really good book, but for a long while, I kept persisting through The Sportswriter, even though Overstory is (and remains) on my nightstand, and was, during the day or so I devoted to it, doing something for my brain (the writing has that Proulxian rush, and did you know all those aspens in Colorado share a common root system?). 

I don’t know why I kept at the Sportswriter, given the language, and, more troublingly, the ideas, were very dated and the plot wasn’t particularly compelling (I don’t, as a rule, like whole novels to be devoted to a very sport span of time (a weekend, in this case)). Maybe it was because it took place in early spring, which I, and the rest of the northeast, are especially hungry for, and because the descriptions of the suburbs are more appreciative than most. The narrator’s fictional town sounds a lot like Wellesley, the town I tend to use as a point of reference when anyone asks where I live. Or, it sounds like what Wellesley would have been like in 1986, when the story takes place. Cultured in a eurocentric sort of way, mildly intellectual, unitarian — but proud of the agrarian roots it had long since replaced. In most fiction, the suburbs represent a deadened resignation or else a chipper vacuousness, but for the titular sportswriter, they were and remained an eden, even as the rest of his life spun out. 

So maybe it was the suburbs thing, that idea that it was okay to appreciate something many might think of as basic. Or maybe it was just that old February lassitude, compounded with nearly a year in quarantine. 

I shook it first with My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was fast and quietly furious and could have been twice as long or else a short story that presaged something much more epic, and again with First, Catch, Thom Eagle’s dreamlike elegy to a springtime meal, and inbetween and before and after, with Owl Moon

A small child and her father go into the woods late one winter night, hoping to spot a great horned owl. The child has absorbed the lessons of her older brothers: to not be disappointed should the owl stay hidden, to accept the bitter cold, to stay quiet — to muffle even a sigh in layers of wool, to think not of what might lie in the shadows.  It’s a story any child with siblings can relate to especially well: the delight of an adventure with just you and your parent, made all the more special for its taking place after bedtime. As the narrator explains, “When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope. That’s what Pa says. The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.” (Though the owl, when it comes, is magnificent.)

It’s one of those stories that are good enough to make a mark even if the writing is poor, and instead it’s perfect, hushed, curtailed, poetic. After a few re-reads, I looked up when the next full moon was and when it came the boys and my mother and I crunched over to the closest clearing and took it in. We did not look for the great horned owl that frequents the woods beyond it, being not especially quiet nor well outfitted to do so, but the moon itself was wonder enough. We went out again on the nights that followed, until the moon waned and vanished altogether. Sometimes, we’d call for the owl — “Who-who-who-who-whooooo” — even my younger son can do it. 

But now it is middlemarch and regularly above freezing and the day lilies are joining the daffodils and snowdrops in the race to unfurl. No color yet apart from the pale green shoots. Last weekend we got our seeds going indoors, pansies and snap-dragons, sweet williams and creeping thyme. In the fridge, a dozen larkspur are germinating — at least I hope they are. The only things I’ve grown from seed so far are humans, and I didn’t know I was growing them until after germination, so to speak. This pre-period is very schrodinger’s cat. Something’s happening or it isn’t. 

Update, two days after the above: the snowdrops, as expected, won the race. And the sweet william have sent up seedlings. The other seeds are still dormant, or dead. The kids went barefoot through the neighbor’s bounce house and all about their yard for over an hour and never once looked back at their cast-off shoes and socks. 

In Essays I I learned about caesura,

The line’s explicit pause.

The ancients liked them dead in the middle

Like their herb gardens and their chimneys but

Sometimes a thought, like a life, doesn’t pause so neatly. So!

You can put one anywhere you like — Dickinson did. 

A winding way

 of saying

hat I hope these seeds live much longer above

than below. 

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