Feb 2, 2016
I step outside on a snow-blanketed morning. The only sound the muffled crunch of rubber boots. I stop on my way to the chicken coop and look out over the mountains. I hear: breath in nostrils, the sound of swallowing, blink-blink of eyelids. I can’t hear my heartbeat exactly, but I can feel the tidal thrum of it. My skin prickles beneath several thermal layers as a hard knot rises in my throat. What I so easily deny in the hustle-bustle of the other seasons, shot through with distracting colors and shapes, scent of flowers and forest, rustle of leaves, soundtrack of birds, I can’t deny here and now.
The greater the winter stillness, the greater my sense of the vertiginous speed of life.
Sometimes, in the shuddery silence of a winter morning, an anxiety grips me, an anxiety bordering on existential terror. I almost feel the earth spinning on its axis, hurtling through the galaxy, a mere grain of sand in the universe. I almost hear all seven billion of us Homo Sapiens, like Dr. Suess’s Whos, shouting “We are here!” into a silent abyss. Sometimes, overcome with clarity, I almost truly get it, the one and only most important fact of life: Even under the very best of circumstances, it will all be over in a twinkle. Sometimes, I weep.
On certain winter days, I don’t feel the slow, clickety-clack ascent up the roller coaster, the pregnant anticipation of what will happen next. That part of the ride belongs to another season. What I feel is the screaming free-fall, wind blurring my vision, g-force pressing my lips and cheeks into an involuntary grimace. Time itself beating against my powerless body, whispering, insisting: Here today. Gone tomorrow.
This isn’t quite as grim as it sounds. Or, put another way, it’s only as grim as the fact of my mortality. In a culture loathe to admit that none of us gets out alive, such thoughts might read as morbid obsession. Over the years, I’ve come to think of them as gifts, and Allegheny Mountain winter as their bearer.
Imagine my deep winter stillness as the stillness of a museum gallery of 19th Century landscapes. It’s pretty darn quiet in here, the kind of church quiet that contains the palpable weight of unseen presence. To be honest, not much changes, year to year. Yet there’s so much going on beneath the surface. The best paintings arouse all the senses, not just the sense of sight. Eyes are conduits to the brain, which, inspired by the scene before it, takes the viewer on faster-than-light trips through time on the wings of memory, where all the senses are renewed and returned to life.
So it is that viewing an oil painting of a rowboat on a lakeshore in Wales (circa 1835) can take you back to a fishing trip in Tennessee with your grandfather when you were eight (circa 1973) and forward to an imagined time when you are a grandparent yourself (circa 2030). Museum galleries focus the mind in time, which is to say that they suspend routine calendar time in favor of something both more permanent and more elastic. They provide a portal for time travel.
This time travel is much like what I’ve experienced in mountain winter stillness. A stillness within which I race throughout a remembered past, into an imagined future, and back again. I am both driver and passenger in a vehicle traveling at the speed of thought and going nowhere, which is the opposite of mark-it-on-a-calendar, pin-it-on-a-map somewhere. Which is to beg the question: Where am I?
Sometimes, in the winter stillness, I’m drawn through a wormhole to a random afternoon at my grandmother’s house, 45 years ago, or so the calendar says. I feel my lungs and scalp burning from a Toni perm. I smell the comforting stench of her cigarette burning on the edge of the kitchen sink. I taste a pimiento cheese sandwich and ice milk for lunch. I see the movie playing on the TV during our nap. Something with Fred Astaire. Maybe Top Hat. I feel tingly with anticipation, alive and safe.
Forty-five years ago or today? Where am I? Perhaps the question is moot: a distinction without a difference.
Sometimes, in the winter stillness, I imagine myself a rock in roiling rapids, where river water flows in several directions. The past rushes over and away from me even as the future rushes toward me, headlong. The present eddies and swirls. So fast, all of it. How can it be 45 years since that Toni perm? Grandparents gone. Parents aging. Traditions eclipsed. There was a final family gathering, although none of us knew it at the time. There was a final night I read Goodnight, Moon to my son, now 20. For years I imagined this future, final night, but when it came, it passed unnoticed. One more memory bound to the cascade of time.
We are rarely gifted with knowledge of the last moment we will speak or do or be. We’re just living, doing what we’re doing when the final shoe falls. Then the next moment follows, and life, like an ever-hungry baby, must be addressed by whoever is left. I’ve attended enough death to know just how fast life turns its back, marches on.
In the year before my grandmother died at age 91, she told me she just couldn’t get over the betrayal of it. Time—that bastard—etching her face, withering her body, ruining her knees, stealing her eyes. She told me that when she saw herself in the mirror, she was shocked. I don’t look like that. How could she, of all people, be stuck in this godforsaken bag of bones? I’ve no proof, since she’d lost the ability to speak, but I suspect that even on the day of her death, she was hoping for a recall, a do-over, an admission from some higher authority that the entire business of getting old and dying was an unfortunate mix-up, a big mistake not at all intended for her.
Sometimes, in the winter stillness, I’m back in her hospice room. The gurgling of the oxygen supply sounds like a fish tank. In the wee hours, my uncle and brother fall asleep. Perched on the edge of a chair, I put my head on the mattress, one hand on hers. For the last time, together, we sleep.
That was three years ago in calendar time, although I’m tempted to dispute this. Just as I’m tempted to object, quite strenuously, to the calendrical fact that I’ve almost reached the end of my 50th year. I’m the age of my grandmother when she gave me Toni perms. I look at myself in the mirror. Where am I?
In the quiet of an Allegheny Mountain winter, my sense of the vertiginous speed of life is not a side effect of busyness, but an artifact of stillness. Even as some days urge me to weep, others thrill me with stomach-tingling joy. I can feel the past, present, and future woven into a sensory whole. I can feel the unseen weight of the presence that is my life, and I can believe, if but for a moment, in its eventual absence.