I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.
There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.
Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.
This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.
But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.
The Day of Cold Food
Clear and radiant is the splendor
Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.
The dying smoke of aloeswood incense
Floats above the jade burner.
My dream is broken and hidden
like my flower hair ornaments
Buried in a pile of cushions.
The swallows have not come back
From the Eastern Sea, but already
People are gathering wild flowers and herbs
In the meadows. The plum blossoms by
The river are gone. Catkins
Appear on the willow branches.
And then—in the orange twilight—
Fall widely spaced drops of rain.
I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification
Tranquil and serene, the night
Seems to last forever.
Yet we are seldom happy.
We all dream of Ch’ang An
And long to take the road back to the capital,
And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with
Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.
Although the food is simple, as are the cups,
The wine is good, the plums sour.
That is enough to satisfy us.
We drink and deck our hair with flowers
But do not laugh,
For we and the Spring grow old.
Fading Plum Blossoms
Spring is hidden in my studio,
Daylight locked out of my window,
My painting room is profoundly secluded.
The seal character incense is burned out.
The shadows of the sunset
Descend across the curtain hooks.
Now that the wild plum I planted myself
Is blooming so well this year
I do not need to climb the waterfall
Seeking wild plum blossoms.
No one comes to visit me.
I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.
I know that although my plum blossoms
Are lovelier than all others
The rain will soon scatter them away.
The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house
With a melody of dense sorrow.
I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves
And their jade snow petals fall.
When they have all been swept away
The memory of my love for them will remain.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows
Cast by the pale moonlight.
Spring is whimsical and wary right now, first appearing in a patch of sunlight and then fleeting away in an ice-cold breeze, only to reappear a little later in the liquid song of a redwing blackbird. I wear my winter coat one day, a hoodie the next, and then it’s back to the winter coat the next morning as a heavy frost sparkles on rooftops. Only recently have I given up my thick scarf, though if there’s a wind tomorrow, I may have to pull it out of the closet and wind myself up in it once more.
None but the bravest flowers are blooming, the winter aconite and snowdrop. Winter aconite is a small yellow flower that’s easy to overlook; it remains shut until the sun has deeply soaked its petals, then pops open like a tiny jewelry box to reveal gold petals centered on delicate pistils and stamens. The snowdrops this spring huddle close to the ground, nearly lost in the mud and dead leaves. As of yet, there are no daffodils blooming—their leaves have come up only an inch or so out the brown ground. They are cautious and since it freezes each night, I cannot blame them.
Beyond the flowers there is the ground itself: a muddle of browns, thick with the rotted tree leaves and the dead foliage of last year. There is nothing lovely to see here, only the form of the land itself. It swells and slopes up from the river, lies low along the horizon, and finally drops into a ditch.
On an unexpected day in early March, once the snow disappeared, city workers came to clean up the young trees and invasive species that have been growing avid and unchecked along the creek near my home. It is the first time I can see the contours of the land clearly in all the years I’ve been living here, and I’m struck by the curves and lines that slope down towards the creek, a rollicking bed of dark brown that makes a strong contrast to the bright blue overhead. The undulating land here is small but it’s a dream, a reason, a mysterious being that wraps through the neighborhood’s mind. Soon enough, this dark and curving space will be clad in green, heavily wreathed by plants, bushes and eager saplings. But for now, it is bare and exposed, revealing the dark space between winter and summer. This is where the wind snaps cold like a knife, but the brilliant sunshine keeps calling everyone out despite the drear.
It’s been a long, hard winter. Now that it’s mid-February, the cold days have started stealing into my bones, urging me to stay in bed and sleep until the warm weather comes. As much as I long to take a three month long nap, there’s stuff to be done and living to do.
I’ve gotten more intentional about warding off the winter blues this year and not let myself, mentally or physically, wander off into a nearby snowbank and fall asleep. I’ve been observing and writing down little notes to myself on what lessens the gloom. These notes have become guideposts of sorts, gently illuminating the path through a difficult winter.
- The first guidepost may be the most essential: drinking hot beverages continually and consistently helps to ward off the deep cold. I brew a small pot of my favorite breakfast tea blend in the morning, switch to ginger and lemon herbals mid-day, and then return to caffeinated teas like black or green at night. Other people love coffee and others their tisanes. Find one or many and slurp away happily all day. Hot drinks are so deeply comforting when it’s cold and dark.
- I’ve learned to take walks even when the weather is crap. Obviously if everything is sheeted in ice, a walk isn’t going to happen but for the those other days, time willing, I make an effort to head outside. There’s the exercise aspect but more than that, it’s important for my spirit and soul. I walk to de-stress, to come in contact with a bigger world than my own, and to climb out of my circular thinking. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that clears junk out of the mind and soul. Our bodies evolved to walk over this earth and so when we participate in it, the old rhythms occur. Walking is a way to feel freedom. And it’s a way to fight too. I feel incredibly alive upon coming inside after walking through high winds and bad weather.
- Reading extensively helps to cast off the smothering feel of an endless winter. Last winter I read Alexander Pushkin and discovered the joy of reading Russian literature during the dead of winter. This month, I read City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, one in a pair of sisters that wrote during the mid-1800’s. City Folk and Country Folk is a delightful satire, ridiculing a variety of “city folk” and everyone else besides. Among the cast of characters is the intellectual Ovcharov, a dead ringer for Austen’s Mr. Collins. The book centers on neighbors visiting each other, eating each other’s food, drinking each other’s tea and generally getting on each other’s nerves until they all decide to stop visiting one another. Needless to say, I adored this plot line.
And after a three month long wait, I received The Library Book by Susan Orlean from the library with two week checkout period to read it. No way was I going to read part way through, return the book, and then have to go back into that long waiting line. I set up a rough estimate of how many pages I needed to read a day to make the two week goal and then started. To my surprise, I enjoyed having a book reading goal and diving into Orlean’s generous and easy-flowing prose every evening.
My last read for this month is Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom. February is Black History Month and the perfect time to read his work. I’m only a few chapters in but his thoughtful and beautiful prose has pulled me in hard into the tragedy of his story and it’s hard to stop reading his eloquent prose.
- Spring will come. It feels so far away and even the evergreens and pines are looking haggard but it will come. When the sky is a certain shade of blue, I remember that it will. I remind myself of this daily.
There are many things to say about 2018. It was weird and piecemeal and full of ragtag moments like most years are; nothing makes much sense while we’re living it. But as I’ve spent some time looking back, shining lights begin to emerge. 2018 had its fair share of dark moments but it’s the illuminating ones that shed a soft, pleasant glow and give me some hope for next year. Two stars that stand out boldly in my 2018 are a writer and a place– Eileen Chang and New Orleans. Both were entirely new to me until I read and visited them this year and both gave back to me pieces of myself, pieces that wandered lonely and at odds until I met one in text and the other one in person.
I’ll start with 張愛玲 — Eileen Chang. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Chang rose to prominence in in China during the 1940’s. She wrote primarily about life in Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in her essays, short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was an extremely popular writer and it’s not hard to see why– her prose carries the reader away. It is beautiful within itself; it creates romance and sensuality and somehow this sharpens the cruelty of her characters.
I began reading her writing this summer, starting with Love in a Fallen City (trans. Karen Kingsbury), a book of her collected short stories. The first story is entitled “Aloeswood Incense” and in it, we meet Ge Weilong, a girl who wishes to stay in Hong Kong and keep up on her studies. Her family is moving to Shanghai and so she appeals to her estranged aunt Madame Liang for help. Liang considers.
One of Madame Liang’s delicate hands held the banana-leaf fan by the stem. As she twirled it around, thin rays of light shone through the slits in the leaf, spinning across her face.
“Miss,’ she said, ‘it seems you’ve thought of everything except my own position in this matter. Even if I wanted to help you, I couldn’t. If your father finds out, he’ll say I’ve seduced a girl from a good family and stolen her away. What am I to your family? A willful degenerate who ruined the family honor—refused the man chosen by my brothers, went to Liang as his concubine instead, lost face for a family that already on the way down. Bah! These declining old families, they’re like out-house bricks, pure petrified stink. You were born too late—you missed all the fuss, and didn’t get to hear what your father said to me then!’‘
“Father’s got that stuffy old bookish way of thinking, and he won’t change for anyone. He doesn’t know how to moderate his speech—no wonder Aunt is angry. But it’s been so many years, and you’re a generous, fair-minded person—would you bear this grudge against the younger generation?”
“Yes, I would! I like to chew on this rotten little memory! I won’t forget what he said to me then!’ She waved the fan, and the yellow rays of sunlight filtered through it onto her face, like tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.
Her fiction is full of rich, revealing dialogue and wonderful touches of details like the above “tiger whiskers quivering around her mouth.” Such writing translates well to screen: she wrote ten scripts and eight were made into movies.
With her splendid, icy prose that cuts like a hot, tempered blade (and since this is a translation, I wonder what reading her in the original Chinese must be like), Chang is an author that I’ve been searching for a very long time. There are times in her writing that her magnificent intelligence vaults above and beyond itself and enters into that other strange, wonderful world that is genius. The excerpt below is from her short story “Jasmine Tea” which centers on a lonely and abused young man, Nie Chuanqing.
He left his hands where they were, pinched by the lid of the trunk. His head drooped, as if he’d broken his neck. His gown of lined blue silk had a stiff standing collar, and the strong, hot sun shone down inside it, warming the back of his neck. He had a strange feeling, though, that the sky would soon be dark…that already it was dark. As he waited all alone by the window, his heart darkened along with the sky. An unspeakable, dusky anguish… Just as in a dream, that person waiting by the window was at first himself, and then in an instant he could see, very clearly, that it was his mother. Her long bangs swept down in front of her bowed head, and the pointed lower half of her face was a vague white shadow. Her eyes and eyebrows, so clouded and dim, were like black shadows in moonlight. But he knew for a certainty that it was his dead mother, Feng Biluo.
He hadn’t had a mother since he was four years old, but he recognized her from her photograph. There was only one photo that showed her before her marriage, and in it she wore an old-style satin jacket embroidered with the faint shapes of tiny bats. The figure in the window was growing clearer now, and he could see the bats on the autumn-colored silk of her jacket. She was waiting for someone, waiting for news. She knew that the news wouldn’t come. In her heart the sky was slowly darkening—Chuanqing flinched in pain. He couldn’t tell whether it was really his mother, or himself.
But the nameless anguish pressing down on him? He knew now that was love, a hopeless love some twenty years in the past. A knife will rust after twenty years, but it’s still a knife. The knife in his mother’s heart now twisted in his.
With an enormous effort, Chuanqing lifted his head. The entire illusion rapidly melted away. He had felt, for a moment, like an old-time portrait photographer, his head thrust into a tunnel of black cloth: there in the lens he’d caught a glimpse of his mother. He pulled his hands out from under the lid of the trunk; pressing them to his lips, he sucked fearfully at the red marks.
Chuanqing knew very little about his mother, but he did know that she had never loved his father. And so his father hated her. After she had died, he turned his fury against her child; otherwise, even with the stepmother egging him on, Chuanqing’s father wouldn’t have become so vicious towards him.
After finishing Love in a Fallen City, I went to Written on Water, her book of essays. There’s a warmth in her essays, a friendly voice compared to those in her short stories and I was delighted to read her takes on apartment living in the city, her views on fashion, culture, film, and art. She takes essay writing to a new level and I’m still working to understand how she used the essay form to her own ends and gave it such satisfying endings. Below is an excerpt from “Note on Apartment Life.”
I like to listen to city sounds. People more poetic than I listen from their pillows to the sound of rustling pines or the roar of ocean waves, while I can’t fall asleep until I hear the sound of streetcars. On the hills in Hong Kong, it was only in the winter when the north wind blew all night long through the evergreens that I was reminded of the charming cadence of a streetcar. People who have lived their entire lives amid the bustle of the city do not realize what exactly they cannot do without until they have left. The thoughts of city people unfold across a striped curtain. The pale white stripes are streetcars in motion, moving neatly in parallel, their streams of sound flowing continuously into subconscious strata.
There is something exceedingly special about Eileen Chang. To read her stories is to be drawn into a special place that is both beautiful, terrifying, and completely intoxicating. I cannot recommend her highly enough.
Cover Image: a Polaroid taken of a screenshot with downloaded image of Eileen Chang’s photograph– a sort of copy of a copy that mirrors the reading of a translated work.
I love being alone in the park along the river. As soon as I step out of my car, I tell that I’m alone by the unusual silence stretching out in all directions. It’s a special sort of hush because instead of human voices dominating the space, it’s the gentle call of birds, animals, wind, and water that fill the air. These are much more gentle and quiet for they represent a continuation of a certain life on this planet, a life much older than humans.
I glow inwardly as I walk the park alone and for the first time in days, I smile to myself. Some Buddha statues wear slight smiles, the internal smile to the eternal world and as the memory of the statues comes back to me, the pleasure of connection causes me to relax even more.
When alone outdoors, I can relate to myself most fully and watch and listen with more mindfulness. I hear the birds first—the chickadees scolding one another and sounding like sweet, soft toy horns and then the cardinals, chirruping and checking up on one another. The sparrows hop and cheep in barren branches, never to be overlooked and always numerous.
Then comes the sound of water, lapping along the riverbank, rolling itself under the bridge.
The wind follows, shifting a blanket of leaves across my path and swaying tree branches overhead. The evergreens branches issue a soft shirrrrr-ing sound as the wind passes through. They retain a green elegance while everything else is brown, stripped down bare.
After I have heard the squirrels cracking walnuts and rustling through the dried weeds, and after I have seen the wind ruffling the river’s top, then finally, I can hear myself. That sound is very low and deep and it takes me a little while to hear it, after the delight of hearing everything else. But it is there and it inevitably opens up what I need to know that day whether it be comfort, direction, an answer, a question, or all of it. It has taken my whole life to hear myself and I have paid a great price for it but I would do it again in a heartbeat. For when a woman has herself, the nightmares slip away back into the inky, black darkness and living life is hers.
And so the wind moves through the evergreens, it plays along the water, and dives between the feathers of the birds. It touches my face and we walk together, two entities atop this impossible blue planet.
Japanese anemone flowers open blush pink petals in the park. Their tall, delicate stems hold up the tender flowers, and in the centers glow tiny pistil-laden suns. Furry carpenter bees buzz in a frenzy, adoring the tiny suns. Like all true worshipers, they circle round and round the yellow centers, smearing themselves in joy and pollen.
I also circle a center, but the object of my adoration is the park itself. As the path guides me around and around, my body, full of the usual tensions and distresses, takes the cue, finds the beat and the measure and walks to it.
The English Romantic Poets of the early 19th century were great walkers and believed that walking was essential to writing to poetry. With the body busy, the mind can walk freely, investing in its visions and tunneling down into what were previously subterranean thoughts.
This small park is my open field, my verdure, my ramble through hill and dale. My feet move on, sometimes slowing to a near pause, other times hurrying, suddenly propelled by a new and vivid notion.
About the fifth time around, a sort of mesmerism occurs and I fall under the trance of the day. The circle becomes a mantra uttered by my feet—knees, hips, shoulders, and arms follow along and we head down the path. I must walk, I must keep walking, I must continue to walk and the resolution becomes a reassurance as a cool breeze fills my lungs; I am alive and refreshed.
I pass under the oaks and dodge their falling acorns. Sometimes I entertain the notion that squirrels are hurling them, but when I catch sight of their small triangular faces they look as startled as me. It is the oaks themselves that are throwing the acorns down. I momentarily consider bringing an umbrella, opening it when I walk under the oaks, but this an old consideration that I’ve been contemplating for years of autumns and I’ve never acted on it. Instead, I dodge and the squirrels stare hard.
Finally I have to go but the revolutions and bees in the park stay with me even after I leave, continuing with their wheeling. They pass through the days and nights, rapturous and serene, monotonous some days and a miracle on others, and on most days both. They exist in the circle that is sometimes opened, sometimes closed. Within the circle, everything changes and nothing changes each time we pass through.
There are small moments that must be filled. They open and expand while waiting in doctors’ and dentists’ offices; in long, slow moving grocery check-out lines; or in those few, empty moments before leaving the house or office for another destination. Staring into space is my favorite pastime and generally fills up all the minutes given (and much more), but there are other waiting times when my spirit needs a gentle pick-me-up without doing much conscious work.
That’s when I open the Photo Album on my phone and start scrolling. I discovered this delight quite by accident while lounging in my therapist’s waiting room one afternoon. I was feeling flattened by living with PTSD and other health issues, and I wanted muster up a little hope before I went into my session. So in a despondent, weary way, I opened up the photo album app. To my surprise, I was greeted by pictures of flowers, landscapes and book excerpts that I had busily taken days ago and had already forgotten. I scrolled back farther and it was much the same, mixed with pictures of friends, family, pets, and friendly dogs I had met on my walks.
I discovered my photo diary which had been my pocket all this time. “I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” It still holds true; nothing is so interesting as what we took notice of days ago, weeks and months ago, be it written in a journal or snapped with a viewfinder.
As days spin into weeks, months, and years, it is hard to catch hold of any kind of underlining rhythm or purpose. A photo diary offers a kind of consolation. There’s nothing sublime there, it simply marks changing seasons, interests, travels, and friendship. But perhaps on the difficult days where everything is too much including our own thoughts, a photo diary is a moment of gentle release. The lightness of ephemerality eases the heavy load of living.
“But life itself is short, and so you are terribly agitated by everything that is eternal.”
–Eileen Chang, On Music
A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.
The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.
When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.
I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.
Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.
The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.
I walk past a window on my way to get a glass of water and note the snow falling outside. As I fill my glass at the sink, my thoughts have already turned back to my work on the computer. I’m wrestling with the household budget, when I’ll fit some reading in, how to get on with my writing work, when I’ll exercise, when I’ll catch up with email correspondence and the list goes on and on.
Anytime I stop my work and look up, past the chatter in my mind, the snow catches me off guard as if it’s the first time I’m seeing it. I debate whether I can put off the grocery store to avoid driving in the snow.
This is the world of the everyday. It’s full of a thousand petty cares, some essential to living, others not as much but all in a lump group, tugging us along.
But there are times my mind needs something more refreshing, and it’s time to take a break. And that’s where music comes in—as powerful as Circe creating a circle of magic with her staff. I pick out music without words (or words I don’t understand). Today is Rimsky-Korsakov, tomorrow might be the film Phantom Thread’s soundtrack, or a piece of jazz played by Lucky Thompson.
As Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden starts, the circle opens. I come out of the everyday world and enter somewhere extraordinary, where beauty converges with life and cares and worries exit for a time. And all it takes is a little music, a little snow, and entering the moment that is now.
I watch the snow falling, noting the wind direction as the snow blows southeast and then drops and then exhales again southwards. I note the density of the snow, how it’s light and sparkling and then downy, heavy, and wet. My thoughts finally still and I turn off the music. A heavy relief passes over my body and mind and I am still, watching the beauty of the world.
This winter has frozen and thawed. And then frozen and thawed once again. With the most recent exhale of cold, fog rises up from the melting ground and wraps my town in a trance.
It softens the ragged tops of trees and transforms the dead yellowed grass into a carpet spreading out into unseen lands. With foggy foreshortened vision, the world becomes finite and in the smallness, my wonder grows. Trees become gloomy gods, bushes hunch over like mysterious beings with secrets hidden in twiggy souls. The sky blurs out and the land rises up to meet it and everything is reformed or brought down to its most basic form. It is easy to become lost and confused.
I walk the perimeter of my neighborhood park. We become redone together. The playground becomes enchanted, strangely unknowable as the slides and swings soften and distort.
The ballpark’s high chain link fence however, becomes more sure. The metal darkens and braces and holds against the diffused white light. I stare at it through my camera lens, delighted by its ferocity while everything else around it wavers and melts.
A train passes over the hill and I can see nothing, it has been whitened out, but I can hear the busy clack of the iron wheels running on steel rails.
Geese fly overhead for a minute and then vanish.
I press on and the mist parts as I walk and so we walk together, softened, softening with the night closing in behind our steps. The night takes everything behind us, rebuilds it like it wishes and then I step into my home and close the door.
Rain falls a few hours later and the fog mounts up, gently pressing at the windows but by morning, it is all gone and only little bits of ice remain on the walkway.
There are moments in time where the past overlaps with the present. Sometimes referred to as “thinning of the veil,” they are strange, illusionary moment when one season passes into another, when the silvery full moon shines its brightest, and when firelight flickers warmly in the cold night.
Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness is overtaking the days of light. Icy winter is just beginning to finger the edges of autumn’s beauty. The first frost came a few days ago and over the weekend, I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by the sight of downy snowflakes falling weighted from a heavy sky.
As the days grow shorter, I catch glimpses of color and movement out of the corner of my eye. I can’t say what I’m seeing exactly—perhaps it is the corners of autumn on the wane, the earth shedding its summer glory before it falls still. Perhaps I’m seeing the fast flicker of days as they shorten, when sunset comes around 5PM instead of later hours.
Whatever it is, I feel the shift and though it’s a cycle I’ve witnessed my whole life, there is something unearthly about the shift, as if something strange is lurking in the off edges of the exchanging cycles. There are tiny spaces in the exchange, little windows that open up into another world and as the darkness lengthens, perhaps it is the past that grows a little clearer, a little nearer.
Earlier sunsets and later sunrises means more darkness and with the dark and external stillness arises memories and with memories, the dead rise up. The dead is our own past, old and gone versions of people and ourselves which are still living. What people have been to us, what they have done to us, what we ourselves once were, lives in the murky shadows of memory and as the seasons change, one foot treading precariously before another, time slides a little and anything is possible.
There are many stories that deal with these strange moments in-between worlds and time.
One of my favorites is Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1924. It deals with the lives with two women, Jan in the 20th century and Juliana in the 18th. The two women never fully see each other, despite their ability to see the past and future, but it is Juliana’s brother, Lucian, that travels through time between them. Jan first encounters him on a stormy afternoon on Hill Street, London. She takes shelter under the doorway of an old, preserved 18th century house and as the rain pours down, he appears near her side. The book follows and explores their strange relationships.
Another book about curious women existing in that magical land in-between words is The Brontes Went to Woolsworths by Rachel Ferguson. The three Carne sisters live in pre-war London. One is a journalist, one a young actress and the last is still under the care of a governess. They make up stories as they have done since they were very young, one particularly long lasting imagery saga about a real life judge they read regularly about in the papers. When they meet the judge’s very real wife, problems ensue and during a dark night, two of the Bronte sisters appear on their doorstep. Take a guess which two.
And of course, any list about the stories that deal with past impinging on the present would be incomplete with The Turn of the Screw. One of Henry James’ most popular short stories, The Turn of the Screw is narrated by a very young and sweet governess who isn’t entirely sure what she is seeing or what is going on with the two children she looks after. The three (including a housekeeper and a few servants that are rarely mentioned) live in a great empty house but after a short while there, the governess begins to see lone figures in what should be empty spaces—the top of a turret, in front of a drawing room window overlooking the lawn, by the side of a still pond. She is never able to catch and speak to them for they always disappear and slowly, she gathers that these figures are not quite human nor, is the rumor, were they that human when they were alive neither. What follows is questions of belief, what is real and what is not, and the end plays out the consequences of her decisions.
Earlier than James’ spine tingling story is The Christmas Carol, a ghost story that largely takes place at night by the master of Victorian ghost stories, Charles Dickens. His lesser known Ghost Stories are a delight. The characters in his haunted tales travel through dreams, moonlight, firelight and meet all sorts of ghosts and other sorts of beings. My favorite “The Queer Chair” occurs when man dozing at night realizes that an old, quaint chair in his room has come to life and they have a long discussion about the future near the warmth of the fireside.
Another of my favorites is “The Ghosts of a Mail.” A drunk man on his way home decides to take a comfy snooze on the top of a wall overlooking a yard of wrecked and decrepit coaches. He wakes under a full moon only to discover that the coaches are being used once more and goes on to have a wild ride with a beautiful lady trying to escape her pursuers.
Dickens favors the moments between sleeping and waking for his ghosts to appear (his most famous ghost of all Marley can’t resist making his appearance during the ungodly hours) and it is small wonder.
Some of my own most fantastic nightmares, more real than the day, occur when I’ve been dozing off or are just beginning to fall asleep. My mind is in-between places here, not fully in one state nor the other. I’ve seen ghostly sad boys standing by my bed. For decades, my bedroom walls were covered in elegant cursive every morning as I slowly awoke.
M.R. James is another writer that uses the moments in-between sleeping and waking as some of his most terrifying moments. One such story is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor comes across a strange bone whistle on his walk along the English coast and inscribed on it in Latin are the words, “Who is it who is coming?” As he makes his way back from his walk, he blows the whistle a few times. Nothing happens. But that night his bedclothes rise in the form of a blind man and attempt to strangle him.
Sleeping is dangerous time, indeed. The mind lives in another realm while the body lies prone. And now as the dark and heavy hours approach, we turn on lights and stay indoors. But those strange corners still remain and in-between our waking hours, we sometimes see them.