A few years ago my brother sent me a photo of my nephew, with the caption Getting his mind blown at Nickelodeon Universe. Nickelodeon Universe is a crowded and noisy place, but in the photo, my tiny nephew stands alone in a huge open space, his head craned up, staring at something I can’t see. The photo conveys profound stillness and concentration. Sometimes it pops up on my screensaver and I wonder again what my nephew was staring at, what was going through his mind.
That photo makes me think of my grandmother, who once, in the middle of a thunderstorm, saw a ball of fire –molten electricity–appear in her living room. It raced around the floor, she told me, it climbed the walls and the stairs. Half a century later, she still shuddered at the memory. That photo of my nephew reminds me of the time I was walking down a country road and saw in the distance a quivering blackness that quaked and chirped. It turned out to be a tree so covered with black birds that it looked like an otherworldly living creature. Sometimes the world turns inside out for a minute and we stop, like the poet below, and stare. We don’t know then that we will remember that moment forever.
To the Boy Who Burned a Snowman, by Thomas Reiter
I thought of you again this morning
after a spring snowfall; of how, one
after another, wooden matches
—your mother’s stove lighters?—
flared as you came up the road
long after dark so many years ago,
a boy I’d never seen before.
I watched from an upstairs window:
you set the head against your forefinger,
the other end against your thumb,
and with a dip of the shoulder
like a submarine pitcher, a fireman,
pinwheeled a burst off the macadam.
No design but play, yet somehow
one with distance landed beside
the snowman I fashioned that morning—
an impulse from the crystalline yard,
my children grown and gone.
The hound’s-tooth coat, its frayed hem
trailing on the snow, its worth
fallen far below Goodwill, caught fire
that climbed to the woolen muffler
mice had nested in. And last the Tinkertoy
arms outstretched to you. You didn’t
see me, nor did I tap a threatening
gesture on the pane. A full moon,
and so of all the proud men
created from that out-of-season snow
he was his own light. You took
a step back as if to run, but then
slowly approached. You stood facing him
as though something—a secret?—
passed between snowman and boy.
You never reappeared, who started him
on his way home. He’d had his time.
I watched him pass into the spring grass,
where his absence would abound.
For more information on Thomas Reiter, please read this interview.