Sunday, September 2, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 28: Don't Look Back

About four years ago, my husband was offered his current job. He said at the time that if I didn't want to leave New York, he'd turn it down, but I told him I thought he should take it. The job represented real career advancement, came with a substantial pay raise, and was located in an area blessed with natural beauty and in which one could live on much less than in New York. In addition, he was extremely frustrated with the job he had then, and I was just coming off my third miscarriage in a row and might have been secretly yearning a little for what they call in A.A. " the geographical cure."

I thought of these things this morning as I drove from Mass through our decrepit downtown (the downtown which, every time I pass through it, I tell myself could be great, cool, and charming, when in fact it's pockmarked with abandoned storefronts, its roads continually under construction). Where would we be now, I wondered, if I had decided four years ago that I simply couldn't leave New York? If you're from there, you know that this type of person actually exists; there are members of my own family who have predicated their professional and family lives upon the axiom that they must never, ever move away from New York (and I have other friends and family members who once held to this position, but allowed it to relax over time when they found that they just couldn't get a job in their fields).

I feel especially nostalgic at this time of year, generally a beautiful time in New York, when the light has softened over even the most ramshackle auto-body shops in the Bronx, and the late-summer cicadas sing from every weed growing up from a sidewalk crack. I travel back in my mind, seeking after certain sense memories, trying to recall fragrances and sights: the smell of strong coffee wafting through the open doors of Puerto Rican lunch counters, the faint tang of smoke in the salty city air, the refraction of the mellow light through the trees, the plums and figs piled up under the awnings outside the Korean fruit-sellers'. But I know that there is no good reason to do this. If I strive, as I say the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, to surrender my memory and my will to the direction of Christ, then I know that I will at some point have to stop chasing the lovely ghosts of memory.

In his song "She Belongs to Me," Bob Dylan describes a woman who has "everything she needs":

She's an artist, she don't look back

I would like to be like this woman, who also "never stumbles;/She's got no place to fall," a line that, for some reason, makes me think of Richard Wilbur's poem "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," especially the breathtaking last line about the heaviest nuns "keeping their difficult balance." 

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
                                             The soul shrinks

    From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."
    Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits,
                      keeping their difficult balance.”

I am striving against memory to keep my difficult balance in the world in which I now find myself. As my cousin said once, "Don't look back. You're not going that way."




Sally Thomas said...

Well, once again you've made me homesick for a place I've never lived. Metaphor for this earthly existence, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Vocation. Mission. Almost everything good in my life was a Plan B or Plan Z. God will get you back to NYC when He is ready. Your longing for it is a sign that the human soul longs for eternity in something familiar yet made perfect by redemption.

Your exile from NYC is part of your crucifixion with Christ, a sword piercing your heart also. Let it lead you to Him. Ora et labora. TQ

Pentimento said...

It's always so good to see you, TQ, and you leave the BEST comments.

I think it's worth noting, by the way, that heaven has traditionally been described as a city.

ex-new yorker said...

And she makes me homesick for a place I always lived! Until a little over a decade ago when I went away for college on a bit of a delayed scheduled ago. I guess it used to be hard to believe that I left New York, that my kids weren't native New Yorkers... Now it's so hard to believe that I lived so close to so much. It's like that old cartoon about the New York-centric map. It seems like pretty much the entire world was within 10 miles of my house, 20 at most. Mostly it's regret that I chose to live life in such a small and selfish way as I usually did back then, when all that (and my now recently past/rapidly passing youth) was there to work with.

The salty air when we went to another city near water really did bring some pangs of nostalgia, but it mostly felt sweet, not too bitter. That was nice; maybe we should visit there more often.

I can probably second TQ's idea that almost everything good in my life was a Plan B or Plan Z. One of the most memorable comments of my Pentimento-reading life was when another commenter mentioned St. Joseph as a patron for those whose lives have not gone as expected. That hasn't ceased to be timely since I first read it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and the City of God phrase is confounding to those of us from steeltowns whose idea of heaven is pastoral. But you are right: St. Augustine had a vision of urban living with delightful surprises, mass song and dance, spontaneous creativity, no unredeemed decay, and no fear.

Veritas et caritas. TQ

Mac said...

Pentimento, your love for the city is mildly fascinating to me. I mentioned it in this post. I grew up in the country, and whether it's that, or just a matter of temperament, I never have learned to love cities, and am definitely not thrilled by the idea of heaven as a city. Give me my green pastures and still waters. I trust God will give us all what we most desire.