dispatch from 02139 (in which, after weeks of not quite belonging, something deep down inside begins to purr)….
i was riding a motor coach into new hampshire, headed up to eagle pond farm, where the great poet laureate donald hall would usher us into his ancestral white-clapboard home. where we’d poke around the old cow barn, play hide-and-seek with the shafts of late afternoon light spilling onto the cobwebs and a century’s dust. where, in the parlor, in the old house, we’d crowd around the old blue chair that slumped in all the places where hall slumped because he’s been there, by the window, looking out at the barn, at the hills, at the birds, for nearly a lifetime. and he’s 84 now.
because nothing in niemanland idles, little screens had dropped from the lid of the motor coach shortly after we’d pulled from the curb. it was a bill moyers film, a conversation with hall and his late wife, the poet jane kenyon. it was called, simply: “a life together.” and i’d watch it again.
somewhere just across the state line, kenyon, who was wise in a way that makes you pull out your pen and jot notes, was talking about how, when she’d first moved to new hampshire, into the old house filled with hall’s family’s rumblings, how for a time she felt “quite disembodied.”
then she said something that made my pen move in that way that it does when i don’t want the words to escape, to whirl down the drain of my brain, never to be fished out again.
she said, and i scribbled: “someone said that when you move it takes your soul a few weeks to catch up with you.”
[in case you, like me, want to know the rest of that thought, here’s what she said next: “and when we came here, of course, this house is so thoroughly full of don’s family, his ancestors, their belongings, their reverberations, that i — at times i felt almost annihilated by the otherness of it.”]
not long after that motor coach epiphany, another wise woman in my life, one who knows my little one quite thoroughly, she wrote a note from back home, after i’d told her about the serious case of homesick blues that had stricken the little fellow.
“it takes two months,” she declared. two months for a kid and his soul to catch up. two months to not feel, as kenyon poetically put it: “almost annihilated by the otherness of it.”
(well, it had never quite inched toward annihilation, but we all get the point.)
so, for days and weeks, as i scurried along the cobblestone sidewalks, tried hard not to trip, not to turn the wrong way, as i thoroughly drank up the otherness, i held those two thoughts in my head. columns, almost, against which i leaned.
and then i lost track.
just scribbled my lists, day after day. tried to remember to turn in my papers, read all my books. dash to the store for OJ and milk and boxes of cat litter, all those things you can’t be without.
people we love came and went. my brother, my sister (long ago, we ditched the “in-law” disclaimer), my sweet little niece. two dear dear old friends. and my mama. oh, and that boy from the college a ways down route 2.
and then, it turned into this week.
and that’s when i noticed the purring. that deep down contentment. that rare inner rumble when suddenly you take in a breath, and you feel the whole of your lungs expanding, contracting. you know, just because you do, that each and every itty-bitty balloon of your lungs is filled to the brim with pure oxygen.
you are walking along a glistening river, drinking in the endless stand of sycamore trunks, all mottled in two tones of gray, as if they’re afflicted with some sort of melanin disorder, and they can’t quite decide whether to be the color of soot or clouds on a gloomy fall day.
you are, perhaps, sitting in a cafe, sipping your peppermint tea, practically knee-to-knee with a professor who is unspooling tales of his uncanny friendship with martin luther king, jr. yes, that’s what i said: martin luther king, jr.
you are scribbling madly, because you can’t quite fathom that here you are, across the street from the very block where “love story” was filmed, where ali mcgraw and ryan o’neal romped, and you are soaking up stories of phone calls and jail cells and marching for civil rights. and you are nearly in tears when the professor, who’s been talking for more than an hour, tells you he wants to leave you with one last image, because, he says, “my kids love this one.”
so he tells you how the very last time he went to say goodbye to martin, after a trip to memphis where he, your professor, gave a big talk at martin’s request, he knocked at the motel room door. ralph abernathy, a name you might know from your history lessons, opened the door, and turned to get martin.
at this point in the story the professor explains how, after a long day of marching and fighting for rights, king and his cronies loved to shake it all off with nothing more pure than a pillow fight. they loved their pillow fights, your old professor laughs, as if he’s watching one now.
and then he gives you the image you will carry forever: so martin, he says, comes to the door, and his black head of hair is peppered with a crown of itty-bitty wisps of white feathers. a celestial vision, it seems.
martin’s last words: “till next time…”
and my professor, the one who is teaching the course on modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, looks up across the cafe table, and says: “there was no next time. he was killed four days later.”
and later, on the same afternoon, after yet another divinity class in which virginia woolf’s “to the lighthouse,” was the subject of much parsing and digging, you find yourself scurrying down the cobblestone sidewalk to meet your dear friend, to ride on the T to the museum of fine arts, where no less than mary oliver — mary oliver whose words and questions and red birds and mornings have stirred you to trembles, to tears — will for an hour stand and read you — and a whole auditorium of others — a full slate of her poems.
and you will be riding the T into boston, and you will look up and drink in the mottled evening sky, as the T rumbles over the charles river. and you will hear the sound of your friend, your friend who welcomed you to the lane, back weeks ago, with a knock at the door and a tinfoil-blanketed plate of hot oatmeal cookies, and you will think to yourself, “i am purring.”
and you will remember the words of jane kenyon, and the wise woman back home who said it would take two months. and you will know, through and through, that at last your soul caught up with the rest of you.
and now it is softly at home.
in the parts of your life where you’ve up and started anew — be it a house, or a job, or a chapter of living — how long does it take, and how do you know that at last your dear soul has caught up with the rest of you? and what do you with yourself in the days and the weeks where it’s missing in action?
p.s. the snapshot above is boston’s museum of fine arts, where mary oliver was about to take to the podium, and read from her new book — “a thousand mornings” — and other poems of wonder. what i hope is that the canvas of autumn sky and the glowing face of the art hall gives you a glimpse of the feel of this week, “do come in, and make yourself quite at home….”