Saturday, September 02, 2006
STANDING IN THE RIVER
I have been on a long journey, most of it not measured in miles.
It began with a train ride to New York City. Facing me in the quiet car, a young woman was heading back to school at NYU. She wore a pale blue t-shirt emblazoned with the words LOVE ONE ANOTHER and the miracle of her own youth and beauty with equal ease. While we traveled she studied a thick stack of fashion magazines as if they contained a secret she desperately needed to know.
Her mother was across the aisle. In her jeans and tank top, she had the kind of bright open face that made me wish we had been friends. Every now and then the daughter found something so important in her magazines that she crouched in the aisle to share it with her mother.
Though they spoke in hushed voices, the conductor warned them to be quiet. His tone was disproportionately harsh. Apparently, their shared excitement about life created too much *noise* for his sensibilities.
When I glanced at the mother, she rolled her eyes and whispered, "The man's got problems." We both smiled.
But people like the conductor could not touch this mother and daughter on the way to New York City. And they couldn't touch me either. As we approached the city, I felt a growing sense of exhilaration.
The first day Ted and I met an old friend we hadn't seen in nineteen years. We traipsed around Manhattan, talking as if the years had no weight at all. Finally, we ended up in a little trattoria in Soho where the food was tastier--and cheaper--than a similar meal would have been at home. From where we sit, we could look through the potted plants and see the fascinating circus of life passing by.
While we ate, our friend Paula told us how she had escaped from the 105th floor of the second tower on 9/11. Her story, obviously recounted many times, began this way: It was a beautiful day and I had just sat down with my iced coffee...
The next day was a business day. From my hotel, I walked to the elegant brownstone where so many of my hopes and dreams had, through a mysterious alchemy, been transmuted to reality by my wizard of an agent, Alice Tasman. Meeting a person I knew so well as a voice on the phone, but had never met, was an amazing experience. For the first hour or so, I grinned at her like a dope. It's really you!
From there, we headed over to Dutton, and then off to a wonderful lunch at LUPA with my editor, the publicity director, and the marketing director. Over the best gnocchi I've had outside of Bologna, I heard their exciting plans for my novel. I also met three interesting people, who like the woman on the train, I could easily see as friends.
After leaving New York, Ted and I stopped at home long enough to pick up Lexi and Emma and then headed to Northampton, the small town where I spent ten years of my life, and the place where I've probably felt more at home than anywhere else on earth.
I met a friend who had been a true sister to me. For at least twenty years, we had never gone a day without talking. But somehow we too had been separated by time and distance. Reunited, we talked, we ranted, we hugged; and more than once I felt myself about to weep by some of the things life had demanded of us.
Later, we went by the apartment where I had once been intensely happy and stood staring at number on the door as if it could tell us the secret of that happiness. We walked the short distance to the elementary school where my oldest sons had walked across the lawn to attend kindergarten, their Superman lunchboxes in hand, and begun the process of leaving home.
We sat on the grass. We stared into the woods where we had buried our cat, Rainbow. We walked down the street where I had jogged hundreds of miles, inventing stories in my head as I ran; we passed the restaurant where I worked, the place where Ted and I first met.
We went to the church where we had been married, but the doors were locked. That's when I realized that all the doors had been locked. Neither the old apartment or the happiness we had felt there would readmit us. We could look into the past all we wanted, but it remained impenetrable.
That night I couldn't sleep. Around two I got up and sat in a chair in our hotel suite, listening for the sound of the train for a long time. After it passed, I went back and again tried to sleep. Failing, I got up and sat by the window where I'd listened for the train and wrote a poem. Whether it was the poem or the sound of the train that released me, I'm not sure, but when I was finished, I was finally ready to rest.
The next day we went to the river, and put our feet in the icy water and listened to its sounds the way I had listened to the train the night before. There in that chilly current, I made peace with all the things that had troubled and excited and agitated me on my long journey: the way life eventually slams all its doors on you, and separates you from people you love, the inescapable loneliness of a train's whistle late at night, the sobering truth that even on a beautiful day, when you set out with your iced coffee in hand, you might be asked to surrender your life.
I suppose the reason I couldn't sleep, the reason I took out my notebook and searched for a poem as dawn approached was because I thought there was an answer to those things. And I thought it was my job to find it. But listening to the sound of the water, I realized there was only this: standing in the river and feeling the cold water, the sun, and the wind as it all flowed past.