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.
The thick green groves of cup-plants (silphium perfoliatumare) stand eight feet tall and are in their late summer glory. I look up at their bright yellow ray flowers and shield my eyes, the bright flowers sway so high and run so close to the sun. When I squint, the flowers darken into forms without color like the outline of the sun beating through closed eyelids.
I take a step nearer and peer into the leaves. Tiny pools of still water collect where the thick cup leaves meet the stems. It has not rained in the last few weeks and I’m surprised there is any water here at all. For leaves that are not broken or rotted, thimblefuls of water weigh without movement, rimmed with the detritus of summer: a fly’s wing, a wad of spider web, bits of dead grass and portions of pollen.
These tiny pools are water for goldfinches, tiny birds that flash by like rays of light. It hasn’t rained for weeks and this is left, tiny pools of water full of dirty summer. I consider drinking it. With one quick gulp, I’d drink the essence of a passing summer, imbibe what August means, and taste the bitter part of the growing season. This is living but rotting part that underlines all our lives but that no one likes to see, much less taste.
I shift my weight from foot to foot. The sun beats heavily down. The yellow flowers tumble in overhead breezes and the goldfinches live nearby, finding water where they can as the dry weeks pass. My hands drop to my sides and I pass back through the grass, ready for the shade. Perhaps when it rains and all the cup plants are full, I’ll take my drink along with the many others.
Outdoor living is coming in fits and starts now that it’s June. Last week it was in the 90’s (30C) and today it is gentle and cool with thunderstorms passing by north and south, bringing coolness in the wake of their stormy skirts. The sun shines but the thunder rumbles nearby and my cats retreat farther indoors to snooze on chairs instead of near windows.
It is tempting to join them. The heat break means that deep good sleep is possible again. Even with air conditioning, I sleep poorly when it’s hot. I sleep best when it rains.
And it has been raining at night but in great torrid thunderstorms where the house shakes and the windows rattle. Sometimes I lie in bed as the thunderstorms march by and wonder at the fate of all the creatures and people living outside.
It is summer and I have no arguments with it. It’s too hard to argue with the seasons. On the beautiful days, I sip my breakfast tea outdoors and watch the birds and squirrels to start my day. There’s always a drama playing out in the backyard. My favorite is the cardinal who walks along the deck rail, casting his bright black eye here and there and then breaks into song until a robin kicks him out. When the coast is clear, he returns and does the same thing all over again. Despite my nearness, he doesn’t mind me at all and I adore his bright red plumage and courageous laughing heart. His song cheers my soul and I’ve come to recognize his particular song. It falls under the same lines as all cardinals but it has a bit of improvised trill at the end. I think he’s been hanging out with song sparrows and got Ideas.
He’s a hard individual to photograph (all flash and movement) but I’ve shared a photo of a cardinal from National Geographic so you can get the idea. He’s hard to ignore and is a permanent on the robins’ blacklist. I aspire to such a level of happy insouciance.
A big city not far from mine has a casino. I’ve heard a few stories from friends that have worked there. Most center on being treated badly by a customer and revenging themselves by throwing the customer’s car keys into the Fox River. Karma is enacted on a regular basis at the casino.
There’s something about that river, flowing by, murky green during the day and black at night, a bottomless pit for car keys.
The river divides the city in half, east to west. The Fox flows along the old warehouses, limestone and brick, built back when the city had manufacturing plants and industry. Now the warehouses sit sturdy and silent, crumbling ever so slowly. Their roofs are flat and give the illusion of brick walls running straight into the sky. Some were built like prosaic wedding cakes, higher and higher, until the final topping is small square with tiny windows. Industry has never been about aesthetic needs and wants. And yet by some miracle, these old turn of the century warehouses have achieved it just the same.
I observed the warehouses from the back deck of the riverside café, clutching my cup of earl grey and wishing I had put sunscreen on. It was the first time I had ever been to this café and I came because I needed a new setting for a fiction story I was working on. None of the cafes I remembered from the past were working for me. I needed this kind of café, one that hung out in an old manufacturing city where there wasn’t much industry left. There was, at least, a casino and many local businesses and this café hung on, here at the water’s edge.
A little further up was the casino where my friends had thrown those keys into the water. From my point on the deck, I could see the grimy metallic white heel of the building jutting out. Another friend told me that he goes there regularly to play black jack. It relieves stress and earns a little extra cash for his family.
The wind picks up a little and despite the sun, it’s chilly. Spring plays these tricks on us.
There is no sign of life in the warehouses all around me. We’re all boxed in together and the light plays off their empty windows, open and blank to the sun. I sip some tea and play “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin just to see if this café will work for my story. It only takes a few bars of listening to the song and I know that this place is perfect. This spot on the river is perfect for many stories. It’s been perfect for all the stories I know nothing about and the ones that I’ve caught the smallest glimpses of.
A mallard suns himself in the weeds that line the water’s edge. The river moves fast and sure and I turn off the music. No need to for further noise. The song is already there.
There was little snowfall this winter. When there isn’t a snowpack to melt in the spring, there is drought because the melting snow fills the rivers and creeks and creates spring flowers. So I thought this spring would be sad. It would be sad just like this election had been sad, the healthcare system in this country is sad, the state of the mental health of this nation is sad and so on and so forth. It would be one more thing.
But no one can predict the weather. It rained and rained at the start of this spring and the miraculous happened: flowers bloomed in a frenzy (it’s been a month and I’ve got the same tulips blooming still), trees let out baby leaves before I could blink and the grass roared to green life.
It is one of the greenest springs I have ever known. And now that it’s been going strong for a month, things are happening. The rain has not stopped and now blooming bushes are pulling down fences, sidewalks are disappearing under green and mud, lawns are growing faster than people can mow and the birds never stop singing.
During a walk, I passed by a young tree packed with chickadees. My husband thought the chickadees were cute (they were). I told him they were vying for territory, their cheeps filling the air with lust for power, trees, and land. And as I said these words, I thought of the few things we know about the Celtic pagan past and that this time of year was not a just sweet time but a pulsating, racing, hungry time. Nobody was full of food yet, that wouldn’t be until later on in the summer. The sun was coming back and people obsessively followed, traced, and urged along her every movement.
This is a season when the continuation of life hangs in the balance. Will the sun come back? Will the green come back? Will the birds come back? Will we survive into the next season? Will there be plenty or starvation ahead?
I sit down to eat breakfast and look out the window. In the garden, bleeding heart flowers cascade from slender green stems. Birds disappear in the riotous lawn only to reappear again as they wing upward and away. The maples unfurl their leaves in the sun while the red oaks are more steady, slow, and cautious. A faint, tender green line the tips of their branches. A small squirrel inches to the end of a slender tree branch and places maple tree helicopter seeds in her tiny cheeks.
It is drizzling out. The sky is heavy but in the gloom, the daffodils lining the chain link fence grow brighter. I thought they had been destroyed by early morning hail but it must have been heavy rain instead for they are jaunty as ever.
I read the news and within ten minutes, I stop and stare across the kitchen table, unseeing. Words course through my brain and I lose my self in them. The swirling words in my mind are moving so rapidly, it is hard to pick out one from the other.
I suffer from C-PTSD. It is not usual for me to disassociate. I often do so without noticing. The news is making me disassociate but I haven’t noticed this yet. I am lost within the funneling word storm.
My unseeing eyes flick towards the yard and the yellow in the daffodils’ skirts urges my self to emerge out of the abandon. The daffodils are calling me come back into the physical world. Anxiety, coupled with an internal deadness, start to slide out of my mind. I start to see but it is a struggle. Anxiety is a serious business and believes its cause is true. No doubt it is. But I have to let go because I can’t live here. No one can. I cannot have a self and reside in this place where words and images babble and scream. It will and is and has pulled me to pieces for years without ceasing.
I extend the trust that it is ok to come out of chaos and let myself look at the flowers.
We enter into the clear space together. The daffodils are my teachers, the illumination into a reality that has few words but is present in every line of plant, stone, green, sky, our very existence. It is a sort of “underworld,” a way of “seeing in the dark,” a place that poetry often seeks and sometimes finds, that other world associated with night and knowing. And here it is, in the heart of a daffodil, beckoning you and I out of mental hell, away from brains lit on fear and terror both for ourselves and others, making a space where we can regain the quietness that lies deep within the soul.
The daffodils were not shredding by hail this year. They called me away from dissociation and back into life.
In the shade of a huge chestnut tree at the edge of town, a monk made his hermitage a refuge from the world. Saigyō’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for “chestnut” means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyōki, all his life, used chestnuts for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.
Almost no one sees
the blossoming chestnut
under the eaves
An excerpt from Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, trans. Sam Hamill
It is resting to read about Bashō’s account of his travels through Edo period Japan during this fever pitch time of ours. He quotes famous poetry and writes his own, recounts the weather, mountains, landmarks, legends, and friends he visits along the way.
His haikus are numerable and they begin to sink into the soul. Nature becomes a deep, rich place, the surest area to connect with the finest thoughts and feelings.
And when I look up from reading, I remember one moment in earlier in the day. I was driving along and I beheld: the black arm of a streetlight become a tree branch of iron beauty, a perfect blue sky hung like a backdrop behind it.
I drove underneath the iron tree and was full of gratefulness that I was alive enough to see such everyday wonder.
I wish the same for you.
Artwork: Lingering Snow at Asukayama (Asukayama no bosetsu), from the series “Eight Views in the Environs of Edo (Edo kinko hakkei no uchi)”, c. 1837/38, by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重, color woodblock print, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/25293
The cool dry weather had shifted during the night and when I went outside in the morning, I walked into a sauna. The front welcome mat was soaked like an old rag but the cement steps were dry. The cracks in the driveway were damply dark but the road glinted white grey in the sunshine. I strolled down the street, fierce pleasure flooding over me when the sun poured down onto my wide brim hat. I felt the heat through the hat’s crown and on my arms but underneath the umbrella of my brim, my face and shoulders remained cool. I gave up on the Pokémon game that everyone’s crushing on and instead, took pictures of the maple leaf shadows on the street. The leaves were pointed like stars, too eloquent for language. I heard them rustling overhead but down below, I studied them through my phone’s window, marveling at their everyday foreignness. They are closer to something, more pure and true because they are closer. What they are close to? I am not sure but I can guess: a land I live in but can rarely see, a melody I strain to hear in the breeze and on good days, I catch one chime or two. I glide further down the street, away from the maples and towards the oaks, red and bur. They do not cast shadows on the street; they are too dignified for shadow play at the noon hour. Maybe later when the work hours are over and they feel free to let down their hair. They are strength; they hold up the sky, push down the earth. They are closer to something but we don’t talk about these things together. We listen instead. Oaks are strong because they are tuned into things that I can barely see and songs I can barely hear. I would like to see more, like to hear more. I would like to hear them. When I arrive back home, I take off my hat and the wind ruffles my hair. I climb the dry cement steps, take one step on the ragged doormat, enter the house, and close the door. H is for hearing. S is for song. T is for time.
(Influences: LaRose by Louise Erdrich, Lucky Romance starring Ryu Jun Yeol, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan)