Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The fragility of growth.

Walking home in the near-silent cool night, after two hours of reading at the bookstore, I realized--right about the time I espied the dragon in his newest haunt, the center of a small stand of daffodils, and right about the time I realized that I was seeing leaves in the lamplight, not just branches, not just buds--that I have become a chronicler of growth. Perhaps I have always chronicled growth; perhaps that is how I became a teacher in the first place. One of my favorite pictures of my younger brother and me shows us, at nearly one and nearly four, bending our heads together intently over some thing I seem to be showing him how to do. In my weird fantasy world, I'm up to some mischief. In reality, I was probably doing something just as earnest as usual.

When my brother was starting to read, I set out to make him some little readers that would interest him in learning more words and getting basic sentence patterns and grammar under his belt. I sat with my mother's old avocado green electric Smith Corona, the same humming typewriter on which I'd clack and smack out my grad school applications not much more than a decade later, and I tried to type up stories that I could then staple into hot pink construction paper covers. I don't remember whether I ever finished even one of those little books. I know that I had expansive plans, plans to create a whole series, plans to win him over to words. I'm quite, quite good at expansive plans.

Given that today was a major day for students' registering for next fall's courses--our next semester breathing down the back of the rapidly departing current one, everyone fantasizing about what will be different next time, how invigorating it will be to have the summer to get everything back under control, how much more well rested everyone will be when these courses actually begin in four months--and given that the cherry trees bloomed even more today, it's no surprise that I'm meditating on growth. The lingering surprise for me this spring, though, has been the meditation on decay that's followed so fast on the heels of its familiar. I'm watching the tree in front of my house lose more and more petals; I watch from the windows of my kitchen while the petals fall like freakish overgrown flakes of some awful precipitation, and where the flowers' smell last week was heady, this week the browning petals simply smell of inevitable wrong.

One of my friends (who has four feet) is slipping into a struggle that, for now anyway, seems not to be overly painful but is occasioning varying levels of suppressed and not-so-suppressed anxiety and sorrow among those of us who love him--most of all, of course, in those among us who own him. It seems perverse that life should be getting so difficult for him just as it's becoming so profuse all over my daily landscape: everything hard-bitten and monochromatic has suddenly gained a softening coat of green; the leaves are making themselves visible more and more, replacing those tiny eccentric glories of seed pods and flowers I showed you all weekend. And just when the weather has warmed enough to make walking the paths at the local park his owners renamed for him last summer, his breathing has become too unpredictable for much more than the shortest strolls down the street. He might improve. He might not. I know it's a perennially human moment of suspension before an inevitability, but I find myself both solemn and hopeful, all at once. I want to believe that if I hope hard enough, and tell him that I love him enough times, and scratch the insides of his ears with my index finger enough times, a few years will fall away from his frame and we'll have him around longer.

When my parents got married, my grandfather gave my mother two pieces of advice. "Don't go to bed angry," he told her, "and in a fight remember that one of you will eventually need to be quiet." I've mistold this second part a bit, I think. But the first part is the one that's most important for me anyhow, because hearing that piece of advice helped make me receptive to a lesson my parents taught me: that it's essential to tell others how you feel about them whenever you can, lest something should happen to them without their having known how you felt.

Now that I write that lesson out, I realize how complicated and full of somewhat displaced sentiment it is. It seems clear to me now, looking at it in front of me, that the worry about things we never tell those we never see again couldn't ever really be about those other people. That worry must be about the ache left by our not knowing whether those other people knew something we needed to know they knew. In other words, our conception of them needed to include among its multitudinous facets the belief that they held a particular understanding of our feelings about them. And in fact, in recent years I think I've moved toward a similarly complicated way of thinking about why it matters to attempt the impossible process of communicating the ineffable: if something were to happen to me and others didn't know how I felt about them, it might be terrible in some greater or lesser way (depending on the person, depending on the feeling gone unconveyed).

These ideas have worked upon me in different ways over the course of my life. I've already told you the story about how I bade farewell to my classmates when I (always logocentered) left kindergarten for reading classes, and how I wanted to know that they were glad to see me return and had missed me while I was gone. I have a shadowy memory of an occasion sometime in my teens when one of my parents forgot to say good night to me, or (more likely) thought that good night had already been said, leaving me abject, unable to decide whether to knock on their bedroom door or simply to hope against hope that nothing bad would happen overnight. Long processes of saying good night are important to me: when I'm visiting my parents, I have a multi-stage semi-ritual to do, involving going back and forth from my room to theirs with the dog, who's game for pretty much any weird thing we ask of her, and getting many embraces from both parents. It's never really enough. I can never fully shake a lurking worry that four bodies will go to sleep in the house and only three will wake up. It's mostly quiet, brooding to itself in some far corner, not getting in the way of anything much. But it does stay there, quiet and brooding.

I'm feeling a similarly lurking, brooding fear these days about my four-legged friend, my favorite Ohio dog, the one who has thrown his head back in worried jubilation (for he is as big a worrier as I) at my arrivals for a decade now. And so it was with some degree of uncanny self-meeting--a feeling that's getting pretty familiar, these days--that I found this poem at the end of my excellent poet friend's gesture when I stopped by her office for a quick hello before I left the officehouse for the night, gave it over to the evening seminar students, the quiet readers and questing writers, filing in with their coffees and juices after dinner, slipping out into the half-dark for cigarettes at their breaks, working earnestly on the other side of illuminated windows for their three hours (I saw them when I went back later for the book I'd forgotten).


Body my house
my horse my hound

what will I do

when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount

all eager and quick

How will I know

in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure

when Body my good

bright dog is dead

How will it be

to lie in the sky

without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift

how will I hide?

-- May Swenson

I'm extraordinarily lucky in that my mournings have mostly been small and bounded thus far. My emotional limbs are all still present; I have not yet had to wonder how the world could possibly, conceivably be so utterly careless. But I feel as though I'm grieving in advance this time, sensing the textures of absence yet to be woven out of events yet to be lived through, and I grieve less for the furry one himself than for those of us who will still be here in the morning, after not all the bodies that went to sleep wake up.


Blogger ttractor said...

you play me like a harp.

10:45 AM, April 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These consolations for Toby (who would not hurt a fly) are lovely. You are a sentimentalist of extraordinary power, Dr. S.

1:19 PM, April 20, 2006  
Blogger *Bat*Girl* said...

In honour of your furry friend, I'll share my favorite medieval dog with you (from Njal's Saga):

But at their parting Olaf said, "I will give thee three things of price, a gold ring, and a cloak which Moorkjartan the Erse king owned, and a hound that was given me in Ireland; he is big, and no worse follower than a sturdy man. Besides, it is part of his nature that he has man's wit, and he will bay at every man whom he knows is thy foe, but never at thy friends; he can see, too, in any man's face,
whether he means thee well or ill, and he will lay down his life to be true to thee. This hound's name is Sam."

After that he spoke to the hound, "Now shalt thou follow Gunnar, and do him all the service thou canst."

The hound went at once to Gunnar and laid himself down at his

Medieval Icelanders appreciated their dogs; that's one reason to love them. I hope your friend gets better soon.

5:21 PM, April 20, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Batgirl, this passage makes me think of my other favorite dog passage, from Eliot's Mill on the Floss, when Bob Jakin tells his dog to stay with Maggie:

“Happen you’d like Mumps for company, Miss,” he said when he had taken the baby again. “He’s rare company, Mumps is; he knows iverything, an’ makes no bother about it. If I tell him, he’ll lie before you an’ watch you, as still,—just as he watches my pack. You’d better let me leave him a bit; he’ll get fond on you. Lors, it’s a fine thing to hev a dumb brute fond on you; it’ll stick to you, an’ make no jaw."

“Yes, do leave him, please,” said Maggie. “I think I should like to have Mumps for a friend.”

“Mumps, lie down there,” said Bob, pointing to a place in front of Maggie, “and niver do you stir till you’re spoke to.”

Mumps lay down at once, and made no sign of restlessness when his master left the room.

11:32 PM, April 20, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Another entry so wonderful that I feel compelled to say so, even though they are always wonderful.

9:47 PM, April 21, 2006  

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