The seen and unseen worlds

See that big rock in the upper right hand corner of this photo? It sits on the radiator cover in your bedroom, next to the other rocks you’ve brought back from various shores and woods, along with the beach glass your best friend gave you one year for your birthday.

“You can ride as far as the big rock, and then you have to turn around.”

The big rock marked the end of the driveway, which was as far as you and your sisters were allowed to ride your bikes, when you were little. You grew up on 130 acres of woods and meadows and you were free to explore all of them, but the road, the nearly-carless road, was the boundary of that world.

When your parents had the driveway paved, not all that long ago, they dug up the big rock and hauled it out to you. They figured that you would want that big rock. They were right.

One of your daughters is in the Galapagos Islands right now. She’s teaching English in a little school on an island there, where tall rock cliffs jut vertically out of the sea, where sea lions are as plentiful as the squirrels are in Minneapolis.

Earlier today you watched a six-second video of a sea turtle clambering across the sand, a video sent to you by her on her phone. At the last second the camera swung around and there was her smiling face, her waving hand, her long sweep of dark hair. Hi, daughter, you said to the screen. You could almost smell her hair, hear her voice. And then the video disappeared.

When you were the same age that she is now, you got on a plane in upstate New York and flew across continents and oceans and landed in the middle of the night in a city so foreign that small children looked up at your vast North American height and, terrified, began to scream.

Sometimes, during the half-year you lived there, at a time of night when you knew that no one would be home in the Adirondacks to answer –international phone calls were ruinously expensive back then– you would pick up the heavy Chinese phone in the apartment you shared with a friend and two Chinese roommates and dial your parents’ phone number.

You wanted to hear it ring. You pictured it ringing there in the empty house, on the wall by the dining table, no one around to pick it up. You needed that connection.

This is what you are thinking about these days, in small and large ways: connection. Between people, between ideas, between silences and loudnesses. Between continents and oceans and worlds.

You woke this morning thinking about a friend who lives in Germany, wondering how she is. You lay there in bed picturing her hanging laundry on the line, a task that both of you love. This friend has been part of your life for some years now, a kindred spirit. You send each other small notes, poems.

You’ve never met this friend in person. Never stood in the same room with her, sat side by side drinking coffee and talking. Never spoken on the phone. Everything between the two of you has happened invisibly, in silence, via email.

It often happens that after a day in which she suddenly appears in your mind, you wake to a note from her, written while you were sleeping. That is what happened this morning. Eight weeks and eight poems but no blog post, she wrote. Are you all right?

Of course, of course, you wrote back. But it’s not always easy to know if you’re all right. Sometimes, like now, you’re going along and going along and then you look up and suddenly the world has changed. You’ve vaulted onto some new plane of being without intending to. You read a certain line of poetry, or you listen to a faraway someone’ s voice on the phone, or you come down hard on your heel and something inside twists, and in the twisting, you pivot into a slightly newer person than you were a moment before.

A bunch of flashing neurons, said someone on the radio the other day. That’s all we are. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that a miracle in and of itself?

It seems like a miracle to you. You love reading about science, how the brain works and the ways in which it compensates when it’s injured. Two halves to a human brain. Two kidneys, two eyes, two ears, two ovaries, two hands and legs and feet.

Bodies are made in duality. Bodies contain two of many almost identical worlds, side by side, working together but separate. Parallel universes.

You’re working on a strange novel these days, a novel which has you in its grip. It’s taken you six hundred pages of wandering before you could begin to see what it was about, at heart, and what it’s partly about is the seen and unseen worlds.

You keep finding yourself writing in and about a place you can’t see and can only imagine, or remember. Where do our spirits go when we sleep? Is a dream real? Were we somewhere before we were here? Where will we go when our bodies die?

The ideas of heaven and hell make you laugh. You care so little about the concepts that you don’t think about them and never have. You’re one of those people who says things like Heaven and hell are right here on earth, and you mean it.

But still. Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound, sings Johnny. Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.

What comes after this?

Twelve thousand miles away, is a phone ringing in an empty room as you type this?

Hello stranger, sings Emmylou, put your loving hand in mine. You are a stranger, and you’re a friend of mine.

Right now, as you type this, your old friend Kingsley is in the hospital, where he has been for weeks.

“I’ve been thinking about my father these days,” he said the other night, on the phone. You lay on the couch listening to his voice, so familiar, hoarse now from a dry throat. In the background you heard the chatter of aides, a nurse, something clinking.

“Remember that photo you sent me of him?” you say. “The one at the party? I keep it on my desk so I can see his big smile. He smiled a lot, from the looks of it.”

“Yes. He did.”

Kingsley is old, and he is so weak that he cannot lift his legs, and his father has been gone for many, many years now.

“Do you miss him?” you ask. This is not the kind of question that you would have asked, twenty years ago, but it’s the kind of question you ask now.

“He always gave me good advice,” said Kingsley. “I could always go to him, and tell him my problems, and he always had good advice.”

You listened to his tired voice, and you glanced at the photo on your desk of his smiling father, bending over a birthday cake with a big knife in his hand.

“Maybe he’s with you right now,” you say. “Invisible but there.”

When you talk about chronology to your students –chronology defined in a writing class as the order in which something’s told– you tell them that many writers begin in the now and then go back in time to fill in the inbetween, back to the present and back to the past, floating here and there in time. That’s because it feels natural, you say, it’s the way we live our lives.

Once there was a five year old who stopped at the big rock at the end of the driveway.

Once there was an eleven year old who wrapped her arms around her skinny self one fall day after school because the dark blue sky and the fiery maples were so beautiful they hurt.

Once there was a twenty year old who forced herself to leave her hotel room in Taiwan because she was starving, who found a dumpling stall and sat there eating potsticker after potsticker at a penny apiece.

Once there was an exhausted young mother who wore her baby boy strapped to her body because unless he was touching her, part of her, he screamed.

Once there was a woman in mid-life, sitting at a long wooden table typing this post late at night, a glass of wine to her right and an oblong phone in a sea-blue case to her left.

You think you’re one person but you’re not. You’re all the people you ever were, at all times, everywhere.

You’ll be going along, going along, going along, and then something happens, you come down hard on your heel, or you look up at the sky at just the right moment and rays are streaming down from above between the storm clouds, and suddenly you know you’re not exactly the person you were before.

Three days ago you woke up and read the blog of a college friend whose family is gathered around her these days, who writes about what it’s like to “plunge into the truth” of her life. You silently vowed that everything you did that day would be a secret celebration of her, out of love and respect.

On that day of secret celebration, you were hyper-aware, the way she would be, of the scent of lilacs everywhere you walked and ran in this green and rain-laden city. Aware of the pavement underneath your feet. You pressed shuffle on your music and trusted that every song would have meaning, and every song did.

All that day you cried, on and off. Running down the pavement from the Y. Sitting in your car at a red light. Walking the dog past the endless lilacs.

You didn’t care who saw you. They weren’t tears of grief so much as tears of fullness. A song by Jon Dee Graham, that astonishing musician, the man who can’t write a bad song, came shuffling up.

I know it’s hard, but I know it’s sweet, complicated and incomplete, but I am in love with the world so full. Don’t turn away, don’t turn away from a world so full.

I’m trying not to, Jon Dee, you thought. Trying hard.

Is it a stretch to feel that if something once was, it will in some form always be? Invisible, maybe. Untouchable. But still there. Still here.

“When we’re old,” your mother says. “Ten years from now. Always ten years from now.”

The book you’re working on keeps shifting time and place, skywarding up into some place that for lack of a better term you think of as the spirit world, a world parallel to this one but existing in its own dimension of time and space. You don’t want the book to do this –for God’s sake, aren’t you already plotless enough? and don’t your novels already curve endlessly around on themselves?– but the novel does what it wants, and this, apparently, is what it wants.

Maybe this is the way the world really is. You and everyone else live in duality –eyes, ears, hands–and maybe, even if you don’t think of it that way, you already live in more than one world at a time. You already take, on faith, so much that is invisible: Air. Electricity. Love. Why not this too?

It’s possible that what you have long thought of as reality –the things of this world you can touch and hold and smell and taste– is only one small part of a far bigger whole. If, when you talk to your grandmother in the early mornings, to ask her advice or just say hi, you can feel her with you, then isn’t she still there?

If, when you think about a long-ago night when you made your way down to the shore and slept on a quilt on the beach because you wanted the sound of the waves in your ears, and you can smell the salt air and feel your body soothing down into the sand, then isn’t it still happening?

If, when you imagine the hand of someone you love stretched toward you, and imagine his fingers wrapped around yours, are not the two of you holding hands?

Technology and its gadgets are bringing the seen and unseen worlds closer, beginning to dissolve the boundaries you have lived by, have believed in. But it’s possible that the boundaries were never there to begin with.

The phone in your back pocket chirps again. You press a button to behold a mother and child sea lion, sunning on the rough shore of a Galapagos sea. The mother sea lion stretches and flops over. Then the camera flips around and a girl with wide eyes and a tumble of long dark curls is smiling at you. Love you, Mom, she whispers.

And immediately the screen goes blank, replaced by a static picture of a tiny white ghost.

What is the meaning of kindness?
Speak and listen to others, from now on,
as if they had recently died.
At the core the seen and unseen worlds are one.

(Solution, by Franz Wright)

Swimming in the dark

And so begins the great lengthening of the light: two minutes today, more tomorrow, and on and on until June 21.

You’re sitting right now in darkness lit by a glowing tree. You’re remembering light, and people, past and present, dear to you.

Fireflies, little magicians of bioluminescence. You spent so many days, this long year, writing and rewriting a tiny novel about, in equal measure, a firefly, a cricket and a vole. But when you think about the tiny novel, it’s the firefly you think of first, lighting the night.

You grew up in a house in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains so removed from anything resembling a town that at night, the only light visible was a sky full of stars. It took you an absurdly long time, after you were grown up and had lived in cities for many years, to realize that the Adirondacks sky is no more full of stars than anywhere else. When the darkness around it is left undisturbed, a sky full of stars is the way sky is.

When you were nine years old you slept over at a friend’s house. She lived in the village, “the village” being the town of 300 that lay five miles south of your house. You remember hardly sleeping because of the streetlight on the corner that glowed all night long. It was so bright.

It’s surprising how much brightness a person can get used to.

In a clearing on a hill in Vermont is a tiny, one-room  cabin. You and your friends built it from a kit you bought off eBay.

The night sky there is full of stars, and the pine woods that surround the cabin are full of fireflies. Someone close to you lived there for half a year, and every night he and his dog went to sit on the bench he built there, down the slope from the cabin, to watch the fireflies come out.

You remember a night at the State Fair four years ago, when your youthful companion and her friend Charlie stood gazing longingly at a kiosk that sold helium balloons on sticks, rubber bouncy balls, and other plastic kitsch. Feeling generous, you bought them each a light-up sword.

Later, as you walked out of the Midway and across a dark meadow to get to your car, your youthful companion and her friend took off across the slope. They wove their way among the trees, their laughter floating through the air, light-up swords flashing in the dark.

You remember buying a package of glow-in-the-dark stars and moons and planets from Spencer Gifts when you were a teenager and your baby brother was turning seven. You stood on a chair in his room reaching up –you can still feel the ache in your arms– pressing each one onto the ceiling of his room.

Those stars and moons and planets are still there in that old room, glowing in the dark when your brother’s young son, visiting his grandparents, goes to sleep.

Here’s a memory of darkness from when you lived on the ocean. There was a white van, and you and someone you loved sitting in it with the engine turned off and the windows open. Summer. A sand road that led to the dunes, and the ocean beyond.

Dark sky above, sand glimmering faintly below, and the murmur of the waves. No one else around. You both took your clothes off and ran in, invisible in the dark water.

But no, not invisible after all. You began to glow, the two of you, arms and legs shimmering beneath the surface of the water. It was an astonishing sight, something you’d never seen before.

There was a reason for it, something to do with oceanic phosphorescence. He explained it to you. But you don’t remember the explanation. All you remember is the sight of him, arm over arm, propelling himself out beyond the break, a swimmer trailing fire.

Here’s a memory of light that didn’t happen to you, but you see it so vividly that it’s as if it did. An airline lost-luggage deliveryman making his way around the curves and hills of the Adirondacks, trying to find that house so far away from anything familiar.

“Dear God,” he said when he finally gave up and called, lost, from his truck. “Where do you people live?”

Your mother laughed.

“Stay on the phone and I’ll guide you in,” she said, and she stood on the porch waving a flashlight back and forth, slowly, a miniature version of the way giant spotlights crisscross the city when a new club opens.

When you were five years old, she woke you in the middle of the night. She took your hand and guided you downstairs and out onto the porch.

“Look up,” she said, and you looked up.

The dark night sky shimmered and pulsed with light. Red and yellow and green and blue, soundless and unearthly.

“That’s the northern lights,” she said. “The aurora borealis.”

You hung onto her hand, your mother whom you loved, and watched the heavens silently singing above.

Years later but long ago now there was another night when you were lost in the darkness in Vermont, driving into the country, searching for the place where someone else you love lived. It was late. Back and forth you drove, past dark houses, dark farms, dark roads, trying to remember the directions he had given you.

Finally you realized you were already there, had been there several times, in fact, in your wanderings. You turned off the headlights, drove down the driveway in darkness, turned off the engine and climbed the steps, everything dark but the faint red glow of the stereo.

Once under the quilts you listened to the sounds around you. Creak of bedframe as you turned over. Tiny rustling animals. Wind in the top of the pines. Crickets. The breathing of someone asleep next to you. If, when you picture it, darkness has a sound, then these are the sounds it has.

If darkness has a smell, it’s the smell of furrowed fields and pine woods, salt water and sand.

If darkness is defined only by light, then light is stars and fireflies, skin glowing in the ocean, the faint red flicker of a stereo after a long journey, the presence of those you loved and love.