It’s thirteen minutes past eleven p.m., and I could sleep, but I’m too stubborn. Because there’s still a capacity for wakefulness in this winter-weary body.* Winter-weary–yeah, right, says the New Englander or the Michigander. How is a Tennessean winter-weary? Because for three nights out of the past five, I have slept in a hotel in my own town, away from my wife, away from my kids, all because there’s a possibility that sideroads may be treacherous and impassable. This is life when it snows or, more accurately, ice-storms in Nashville. Trucks brine the interstate; people with buckets scatter blue salt over concrete stairs and isolated parking lots; and the administration at the laboratory where I process cancerous tissue five days a week takes the initiative to ensure its workforce’s safety and its capacity to perform its important job by generously providing hotel rooms for those of us able to stay. Every specimen is a patient. I never forget the human at the other end of the tissue that I’m processing, because I know that we are all grasping for our lives and for the lives of those we love. We cling to this vapor of earthly existence, no matter what we believe about the hereafter. If we humans unite behind anything, it is this: we’re all trying to stay alive. This is our impulse. Perhaps it’s the purest instinct. And we don’t let go of it until there are no other options; until it’s wrested from our slack hands.
How does one not think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in a post like this? So I cling to consciousness, because it’s my impulse, even though I should be sleeping. I didn’t inherit that napping gene that brings so much joy to others (neither did my oldest son). I stay awake until I no longer can. It will take its toll later in the week, when I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30 on Friday night. But for now I soldier on, writing this blog post, thinking about how rarely we have a good snow in middle Tennessee, about how people lose their minds when the temperature drops below freezing, and about how we’re all together (even though we don’t always like each other) in this endeavor of life.
*Winter-weariness is not altogether bad. I’ve written elsewhere that I often feel more alive in winter. Weariness can coexist with contentment, it seems.
In one corner of the large, rectangular room, cousins in their twenties reconnect, while in another, the parents of those same young adults slip into the easy familiarity–brothers, sisters, and in-laws, all privy to the old jokes and family stories; thoughts of those who’ve gone on but whose presence remains, bittersweetly.
Even if I was a blood relation, however, I’m not sure the easy familiarity would come, or rather, when it does come, it never stays for long. I’m rarely at ease anywhere outside my house or the few coffee places I haunt. Over the course of my thirties, solitude became the preferred milieu, despite a fairly sociable teenage and young adult life. I suppose it was the growth of the writer inside. You can roll your eyes at that if you want–it’s fine. I’d rather you not let me see you do it, though, for civility’s sake. Yet this is something that any artist understands: the necessary loneliness. You reach a point where you either give up the call or accept that if you’re going to accomplish anything of value, artistically speaking, then you’re going to be trudging that path alone.
It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve found a comfortable chair with a full view of the room. A few settle nearby–wife, brother-in-laws, father-in-law–those who are naturally close. But across the way is an energetic demographic with whom I won’t share a word the whole night. Some of them, I won’t even make eye contact with. I wonder if they see me as the misanthrope in the corner, which is kind of amusing, but also not exactly how I want to come across. Nevertheless, we can’t control what others think, right? Everyone is friendly; everyone is thoughtful and warm–paragons of virtue, in fact. And I am content to be a spectator, thinking about my various projects, thankful for those I love and for those who love me. I am often alone, but I am never lonely.
Do you feel there is a scent in your environs? A whiff of setting–however subtle, however breathed–that informs the eras of your life? And it may be no scent at all, but a texture of the air–a psychological scent, recognizable by the baseline “I” of your consciousness, the one that is privy even to your sleepdark dreams, nestled unfathomably inside the case of your body (that is dying daily). I speak of the smell of a life chapter, so to speak–the intangible thing that, when you achieve a later maturity, will temper entire decades.
Maybe it’s not a smell but a color, diaphanous, tinting the light which surrounds you. Like fall is orange, but even less definable–a thing understood but not defined. Like November’s shroud of misted gray and the brown of bare branches somehow made richer by that very same gray.
So what is the color and scent of adolescence? Of childhood? Of those first few years of marriage? when you can’t figure a thirty-year anniversary and adult children; it simply escapes your powers of projection. What is the color and scent of those two earlier years in which you struggled, failed, and survived–simultaneously the best and worst of times? Of those other two years, earlier still, when you were so certain, yet you failed anyway? What is the aura of each of these gilded and tarnished eras? And all along, your most consistent boon has been experience–bitter, ecstatic, human experience.