Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October Fruit

They shall still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing...
— Psalm 92:14

Another year of my life has drawn to a close, and with it, another growing season. The tomato plants, once pregnant with summer's bounty, now sag dejectedly in the muddy ground, heavy with green fruit that will never mature. The icy night air has faded their once-bright flowers into a pale yellow translucency—an annual picture of the fruitful might-have-been. October has again caught them unawares.

* * * * * * * *

Three weeks ago, when my 91-year-old grandmother fell and ended up in the hospital, none of us anticipated a prolonged recovery. She had hit her head, and she was weakened by the injury, but the bruise would heal, and she would be well again soon. She has always gotten well again. Hers has been a long life.

But a life, to be called "long," must have an end; eternity is not a span that can be measured. And so it seems that this long life of hers will, after all, have an end as well. She is home again and has regained some of her strength, but I can see that her October has come. In spite of this brief Indian summer, the first frost has already taken its toll. She complains of the chill in the air, and her limbs are more frail, her hands less steady.

* * * * * * * *

Last Friday, I spent the lunch hour with my sons at school. We passed the potato chips among the five of us and talked amid the din of a hundred children laughing and joking and shifting fidgety legs; of a hundred children crunching apples and unwrapping sandwiches and rummaging in brown paper bags. My own little boys bounced and squirmed in their seats, talking over one another, giggling at trifles, filled with a surplus of energy that could not be contained within their small, robust frames.

That entire lunch room was a fresh battery, charged with electricity waiting to be released. If I were to spend a full day in the company of so much youth, I imagine I would gather an electrical charge of my own. I felt as though the room might burst—that those walls, like my own bulging body, were pregnant with life about to break from its confines. And at noon, the room did, in fact, give birth to a hundred electrified children rushing outdoors to play. The clock's hands converged at the number twelve with a clap like thunder.

I have seen these children zipping down plastic playground slide, their hair standing on end. At the bottom, I stretch out my cold hands to catch my sons and pull them up, and as we touch, their lightning fingers burn my own; at that startling moment, that point of contact where we two distemporaries collide, something ignites.

On a dark October night, we could have seen the spark.

* * * * * * * *

As my two youngest sons and I entered the nursing home after lunch, my gait was slow and plodding, heavy with my long-awaited child. I felt that I, too, could make good use of the abandoned walker sitting just outside the front door. Passing through the hallways, my children ran their dimpled fingers along the handrail, hanging and swinging and skipping from it, using that would-be crutch as the bar of a jungle gym. They leapt past each open doorway, never noticing the frost-bitten forms lying on inclined beds just inside those rooms; never seeing the hundred color-drained faces bowed over half-eaten meals in the quiet cafeteria.

We turned a corner, and boldly centered at the end of the long hall sat an old man, directly facing us from his wheelchair.  His unflinching gaze was fixed upon us as we worked our way toward him. His crooked, unclipped fingers grasped the arms of his wheelchair, while the oxygen tubes in his nostrils made a rhythmic pop and hiss. He breathed with a sound like Darth Vader. I made eye contact and then looked away, pretending to instruct my kids on how they should behave when they saw my grandmother, although I had given them the same reminder only moments earlier. And when I looked up again uneasily, those aged eyes had not wavered from their point of focus.

As we drew nearer to him, my sons, too, became aware of his unnerving presence, and they fell back, hiding behind my legs. He stared us down. Would he let us pass? I tried to slip casually by him with nothing more than a quick hello. But as I turning my eyes again to my sons, his gnarled hand rose from its resting place and, with a suddenness inconsistent with his shriveled state, he jabbed a pointed finger at the center of my protruding belly, his ridged fingernail pressing into my flesh as if testing the ripeness of a large fruit.

Did that moment of contact leave him with a sensation of warmth? Of an electrical charge shocking his chilled limbs into life? Perhaps some sort of strength did flow out of me, but even the vigor of nascent life does not have the power to raise the dead.

Life and death were colliding, and my burning skin was caught in between.

"What's this?" he demanded like a gatekeeper demanding a password. I laughed nervously and stammered something about having another baby in there, but the man had already shifted his attention downward. "Hellooo," he crooned. "You are our favorite kind of visitors." I smiled feebly and told the boys to say hi—something I had hardly wanted to do myself. And I did not rebuke my son when one of them ignored my instructions and merely gaped.

I felt tempted to gape myself.

We moved on down the hall to meet with my grandmother. I could still feel the sting on my belly where that withered hand had touched me.

* * * * * * * *

Another birthday has arrived, and I have much to be thankful for in remembering the year that is gone. Every October brings reasons to celebrate, but it also brings reasons to consider my own mortality. This northern growing season is painfully short, and those sun-loving tomato plants never do reach their full potential before fall arrives. They could have done so much more—born so much more fruit—if the cold had not set in just yet. Not just yet.

But while I survey the frost-stricken garden and look back on the harvest that was, I must remember how much this growing season has given to me. And I can see that even now, among all those withered plants, not a branch is barren. Their fiery red fruit is gathered up, their feeble limbs now limp and unable to rise. They are weighed down. But with what?

At the end of my own growing season, at the end of my own painfully short life, is this the sight I want my time-worn self to see reflected from the mirror? Will I recall with joy the fruitfulness that was mine? In that final October, when I reach out my hands to touch the young, and I again feel the startling heat of that spark, may I  see In the light of that momentary fire that, although my weakening limbs are weighed down—they are weighed down with still-forming fruit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

I have had little time to write these days, due, at least in part, to the daily mountains of laundry rising in impressive peaks and ranges across my bathroom floor. And as I near the end of this pregnancy, mountaineering has become an increasingly daunting task. My four—soon to be five—boys have a unique genius for staining multiple sets of clothing each day.

Although laundry occupies a significant part of every mother's week, it is nevertheless a subject given little dignity by the literary world. There is no shortage of (mostly sappy) poetry praising motherhood in the abstract, but not much is said about what mothers must actually do to keep the household running. Potty training must certainly have the potential to inspire earthy metaphors, and doing the dishes is a topic ripe for poetic analysis. Clearly, more mothers of toddlers should become poets. 

G.K. Chesterton once said that "the poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." True enough. But they have also been mysteriously silent on the subject of laundry. In light of this sad omission, I thought I would share one of my favorite poems, by one of America's best-known poets. It is the only poem I know of on the topic of washing clothes, and it elevates that mundane task to something almost holy. Read it twice.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

by Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

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