My mother fed caramels to the squirrels.
She didn’t like her own mother. She didn’t like people very much. She claimed to like animals.
Strictly speaking this shouldn’t concern you. You have your own troubles. It is likely that you want to clean up the garden, burn the old plantings, maybe talk to your cat about Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound who tried to paint Paradise on the inside of his eyelids.
We are all students of doubtfulness and of its moods.
Unlike my mother I tend to enjoy people. I’ve been known to bake bread and leave it on the doorsteps of near strangers. This is no joke. I bake good bread. I listen to Verdi while working the dough.
Ah but now in middle age I find I’m cut off on the inside. And though I can stand in a room and smile, tell a joke, sing a homemade song, even so, standing before the tall glass of my life, there under that moon I am lonely.
I am in no way singular because of it. The man across the street who is picking the last tomatoes of the summer is lonely. The woman I met this morning who teaches linguistics at the university is lonely. My friends, my wife, all my relatives are quietly alone though we are trained to withhold this even from the psychiatrist or the priest.
The poet William Carlos Williams said in one of his poems “I am lonely. I am best so.” I remember reading those words as a college sophomore and I felt the proper fit in my soul.
Make no mistake every heart is in a condition of static or pure loneliness. This is why Jesus said to his disciples: “My father’s house has many mansions. If it were not so, I would not tell you.”
Of all the lines in the New Testament those are for me, the most comforting. This is according to my soul. My soul, that forlorn intelligence hugging my tissues and bones. My soul that cannot get used to life. That insists on sleeplessness so that together we can work out the geometry of mutual being in our common and threshed hours.
Once I harvested the last sunflowers of autumn because the frost was coming.
I did this with some friends.
We brought half living, stately sunflowers into an old house and we propped them against the hearth. We sang songs and drank wine. Unspoken? Every one of us had Lorca under his or her ribs and we could, it turned out, give our souls a warm room and some fading flowers.
My mother died without knowing this feeling of shy, unasked for communion. I think her story is legion.
John Donne writes in one of his elegies:
“Xerxes’ strange Lydian love, the platane tree,
Was loved for age, none being so large as she ;
Or else because, being young, nature did bless
Her youth with age’s glory, barrenness.”
Surely the aim of living is to craft a fruitful spirit.
Not long ago I discovered a boy jumping on discarded bedsprings on a Chicago sidewalk. He was making a stripped down music from solitude and trash. It was the song of a woodcutter’s axe in the empty woods. He saw me listening. He sensed an audience. He threw everything he had into making rare music with ruined steel coils and shoes. He was releasing invisible spirits into the morning air of Wabash. Avenue.
At first I thought his effect was obscene. The bed springs sounded like the furtive, metallic groans of forgotten trysts. I thought of a bordello in the Wild West. I laughed at the salty bravado of the performance. Then I saw flashes of light. The broken springs flashed like the undersides of leaves. His bed springs were tuned in harmony with the sky and the local trees.
I saw sparks—heard 16th notes; 8th notes; the found music and electrolysis of dance…
He was dancing at the epicenter of first light—that overcast sun that always hangs in the mornings above Lake Michigan.
Then he was in an island of trees. Low notes came suddenly: the notes signified a bent path. The way forward was harder for some reason. The dance had taken a darker turn. I could tell this was now a steep narrative. Somehow he’d figured out how to make the springs sound like a tuba. Then he made the metal groan like a cello.
I remembered that as a boy in Naples, Enrico Caruso sang in the streets. When he made a little money he would eat a blood orange sorbet outside the café Risorgimento. They called this dessert the “frozen sunset” –a dish of scarlet juice and ice, misted with lemon.
I like to imagine the scene: the boy and future tenor singing love songs to the fiancée of a very rotund man from Caserta. “Only a boy can carry my heart,” said the fat man to his beloved. “Boys are still sweet as the baby Jesus!” Then I picture him clapping his hands the way impresarios do: a fleshy sound of exaggeration.
And surely the girl was embarrassed. This was a street urchin, a boy in a dirty shirt. A child hired to sing love songs! This thing was a joke! But there on the via Carraciola in the din of carts and boats and street hustlers the boy sang Bellini’s Ma rendi pur contento his black eyes shining with joy and concentration so that passersby stood still. Two men, twin brothers from Rome stopped eating their sugared almonds. There in the heat of the day in that unforeseen place was a prodigy. What could surpass the unassuming purity of such a child’s voice?
The boy performed as if the edge of his heart was catching flame.
The fat man from Caserta was delighted and bobbed his head like a pheasant, then strutted, ruffled his feathers. His fiancée tipped her head in wonder, her features softening, a portrait reversing to a sketch. Her enormous hat with its absurd ribbons could not hide the smile.
Then the boy sang Bella Nice, che d’amore, his hands stretched out, palms up, without irony. Could anything be this sweet again? Vin santo and peaches? Cloves in the boiled sugar?
The boy Caruso and the hot Neapolitan day were working together, visioning ice, ice on the fat lip of a hungry lover.
The kid on the bedsprings spoke with his feet, said: there’s no iridescent glow of escape beyond the dancing and you got to hear it for yourself.
This is the secret of growing old profitably in spirit. We can do this.