Happy New Year
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because I never heard anything back.” “This longing you express is the return message” —Jelal’uddin Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks
A Late December Night
Real life happens when the door swings open. After so many stormy nights, now a fist of stars punched through the clouds, my palm thawing thin frost on the deck rail, one more year about to end. It’s 38°, and tree frogs in a flooded gulch are singing for the warmth of love.
Can you call it love, their wet coupling in soggy woods? Can you call it desire, that drive to leave your DNA like the secret combination that unlocks another form of you hopping into the future?
This day began too early—the quick padding of cat feet over hardwood floor woke me. When I caught up with my calico, she was in the greenhouse, whiskers to glass, fogging the pane so that she had to keep adjusting her face, her body to see through and into the darkness. Her tail was puffed up, mottled fur electric, just the tip of her tail slowly swaying.
A raccoon. He poked around in the winter-rotting pots of annuals, then careened toward the glass door and looked through to my eyes as I crouched at cat level. His eyes flashed copper before he turned, gamboling down the stairs, his soft body faint and rocking back into the redwoods.
I made a cup of tea then and swung open the door. Stepping into pre-dawn mist, the hoarse hum of high surf grinding in the distance hit me. Leaf litter crackled below the sprawl of tree limbs and squat saplings, all that rain caught in needles now slipping down into mulch. For a moment, everything coalesced into a single sentience, a solitary being, walking away from me.
Alone, I thought of Melissa, not yet 30 and deep in grief, her first big death, her father in mid-November. I cannot save her from the pain of irretrievable loss. I thought, love you. I thought the words as intentionally as I could, hard and intense, until my chest felt a subtle burning, but perhaps that was just freezing fog in my lungs. Still, the only balm I could offer were those words, the emotion they symbolized.
Did her body, still safe in the numbness of sleep, somehow know what I tried to will her?
Once I wrote: words are poor avatars. I’d just learned the world avatar from Melissa’s daughter as she played an electronic game, focusing her attention down into a little screen full of colorful images clasped in her 8-year-old hands. She had paused, bringing her face—not a crease, not a wrinkle in that smooth forehead—to within a few inches of mine.
“Who you are,” she explained, “is inside a body, and the body lets you go places, do things.” She was a patient and serious teacher. “You are in this body but the body isn’t you. You are still you. Do you understand?” I understood, in more ways that she would understand.
A few days later at five in the morning trying to turn a feeling, some meaning into words, I wrote: words are poor avatars. I just couldn’t get the concept I was grasping at into the words, the arrangement of words, that sputtered into my notebook.
When I used to teach writing, I would tell my students in the first class that the art of writing is putting into words that which cannot be put into words. “So, I’m merely asking the impossible of you every time you sit down before a blank page,” I’d say, and everyone would laugh then fall quiet. I’d finish with, “I’m not kidding.”
Standing under cold stars, this morning now a long time ago, I think, the human body is a poor avatar, too. Our bodies, clumsy and confused, wobble through the days, each body bearing its little portion of mystery that only grows heavier with time, connected to something beyond us that we can’t quite see, described only as other.
Later I’ll move my hand across a page with a pencil, let loose my fingers to a laptop keyboard, reaching into the mystery. Something will be written that seems to be from me, by me, but honestly, I’ll never know where any of this comes from or why.
Surprise, the raccoon is back, has been out here with me the whole time, balancing on the deck rail, digging seeds with his tongue from the birdfeeder. I stepped too quickly. We’ve startled each other. He leaps to the deck, sounding heavier than a raccoon or like a pack of raccoons. A grey blur, he scrambles down the stairs, his striped tail lost in faint night shadows spilling into a ring of frosted redwood seedlings.
I listen to the frogs’ thrumming, their calling one to another, that I’ll soon turn and lock outside all night. I feel my heart as the muscle it is, flexing and releasing quickly at the edge of my left breast. Little raccoon, I bet your heart is racing, too.
The world comes back to me, broken into its many astounding parts. Melissa returns inside my thoughts, and I remember how alone doesn’t really exist. I could share this knowledge with her, but having lost my own parents, two sisters, so many I’ve loved, I know the timing is wrong.
Grief, like the waning gibbous moon, must have its phase. I whisper, Happy New Year, love you. I can’t go back in yet, my hand at the door, my whole body listening. The frogs are louder; more have joined in. The sky is luminous with stars. The frogs are how the rain continues its rhythm, the persistent dripping turned temporary pulse.