A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I sometimes think of myself as Jody Tiflin, the boy from John Steinbeck’s story who longed to have his mare Nellie deliver a foal, the red pony, only to discover that the foal hasn’t turned and Nellie must be killed in order to deliver the foal by caesarean section. That’s spring here in Vermont, a foal moving its hooves and head around in the womb of a mare called winter, but not quite able to be born. We have our buds starting on the forsythia bushes; the ground is wet and moist as chocolate pudding; the air is crisp and nervous with birds. But the storms keep forming west of us and building their dark towers of rain and slushy ice to keep us huddled before our wood stoves. The heart aches for spring, the mind yearns for a lover to kiss whose breath is delicate as a wildflower’s. But the polar vortexes keep convulsing out of the wobbly ice cap and throwing down the murky dregs of winter. The garden knows better and withholds its onion shoots; the rhubarb’s powerful wrists with their red streaks aren’t pushing up yet. The oaks are the wise old bards of the woods and they won’t crack open their twig ends until it is safe.
I hate waiting. I’ve waited all my life for things to happen. My birthdays never came soon enough when I was a kid; I had to sit around that long, uneventful day and tell myself how special I was, when no one treated me as if I were distinguished. I was even told to clean my room the afternoon before my cake would come out of the kitchen trembling with candlelight. I was insulted by the dead space that preceded Christmas, Easter, the last day of school, the hours before my father drove home the new Studebaker, the times we were to go out to a restaurant to celebrate some mysterious milestone in my father’s government career. All those gaps in meaning were rasped to a dull sheen by the anxious tension in the air. You dared not let yourself think too much or you might get nauseous.
Waiting is like staring at the calendar and wondering when it will be time to seriously think about choosing some candidate to run against Trump. He sits in his lonely White House pulling the levers, firing all his top command, barking orders at minions, and figuring out how to punish the liberals with new executive orders. He keeps promoting new tariffs against old friends in Europe, weakening bonds that held the old world order together. He moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to declare his love for Bibi Netanyahu. He will accept the annexation of occupied territories, once Bibi gets his new right wing government together. You can’t bear another bad day, so you wait for the weather to change. You console yourself and feel reassured the truth will catch up to him. But we’re only half way there.
I once waited under a streetlight for hours hoping the girl I had fallen for would turn on her bedroom light, come to her window and wave at me. She never did. She married early and had five kids, and passed me in the supermarket wearing a flared skirt that her hips pulled tight around her. I was devastated anyone could let herself go like that. I could have been her husband if she had parted her curtain that night and smiled down at me. I stood there waiting, as if the night could turn itself inside out and make me leap for joy. I walked home in the rain, soggy and disheartened, and smoked a cigarette on the porch swing. So much for dull aches and silent prayers.
Two purple flowers tremble in the breeze below the bay window. They are there to save the world. They are not waiting for warm weather. The wind is so crisp, your ribs tingle. You aren’t wearing enough layers. But there they are, like girls in blue bonnets, dancing with glee. Around them are other clumps of green sprouts ready to burst open. They are trying to tell me something, but I’m so stubborn I can’t hear them. I demand my prize now, at this sun-filled, radiant, crux in April.
They also serve who only stand and wait. That was the wisdom of World War II for GIs who longed to see some combat before they went back home. The guys who did were gored by bayonets and mortar fire, and were packed up in bags for transport home. If you were scouring out the greasy pots of your camp kitchen and cursing your fate, waiting was a silent angel beside you, guiding you through the day, making sure you would be alive the next morning.
When I sat in the waiting room at the Vermont hospital wondering what my test results would say about my swollen prostate, a man emerged from the swing doors accompanied by someone in scrubs who was consoling him. He was pale and didn’t seem to be looking where he went. He had to be guided out the door and into the big concourse to the elevators. He had heard something that was dark, a death sentence, I surmised. He had also waited, and thumbed a magazine, considered the ads, wondered if he had enough money in the bank to buy a new car. Life beckoned, and there were islands of light he could traverse the way Jimmy Durante did at the end of his show, bidding Mrs. Calabash goodnight. But those little glittering atolls were too weak to illuminate the poor man’s grief or give him hope.
When the doctor said he couldn’t find a trace of cancer anywhere in the biopsies he had taken, he seemed puzzled. I should have been afflicted with this terrible death threat, he said. My brother died of prostate cancer, a terrible death I witnessed to the very end. Nothing was worse that the withering, the disappearance, the remaining skeleton with its flimsy covering of skin, the sunken eyes. My brother was brave, uncomplaining, and had made his peace with the grim reaper. He was so drugged with painkillers from the kindly hospice nurses who came each day, he would let his eyes wander over the breakfast room where I had put his hospital bed, and gaze out into the trees of the backyard with a look of gratitude that life was thriving out there.
The doctor told me I would likely have to have the gland removed, but when I emerged from that painful ordeal, the lab was given the tissue to explore for hidden cancer cells. No such trace. I was free to return to the throb of life. I had waited in that vinyl chair in the hospital waiting room like a man on death row, only to be given my wristwatch and ring, my white shirt and blue pants, and told to go back into the world a free man. The ride home was an acid trip of emotional climaxes as I embraced every trivial detail of the roadsides, the slate-gray, rain-swollen sky. My life was given back to me, and the waiting had birthed an Easter egg on the green excelsior of my basket. What do you say when you are given amnesty from the underworld? You don’t know how to cry that deeply; your eyes keep staring at the sky, the noisy complexity of reality just beyond the window.
Waiting for spring is a tedious exercise, like someone trying to meditate, someone on his yoga mat who can’t seem to calm the chattering monkeys in his head. Spring has its own logic, its impulses buried under the detritus of winter, the carpet of dead branches and matted brown leaves. Spring is thinking with its thin white roots, its oozing black moisture, its worm tunnels, its inarticulate voice mumbling syllables of decomposed flies and grubs. If you could lie down and put your ear to the earth, you might hear distant singing. The spirits might be waking first, long before the thaws that will release the energy of the season. You know that the word april means the opening, but you are lying there waiting like a boy who wants to kiss his girlfriend but dares not impose himself. He will likely stand up and return home to think about her and lose her, and see her again in her radiant flowery glory with someone new, a kid with slick-backed hair and a coat that hangs on him like the jewels of some exotic garden.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.