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There have been a few important days recently in my life: in one I heard the news from a friend who was told she had a mortal illness and would die very soon. Some months ago there was a day of high drama: the one-hundred-year-old house down the road burned to the ground, consuming the possessions of generations of Maine-loving summer people. And there was the catastrophic day on which one of my acquaintances, eight miles away, died of AIDS. I have ruled against all of these as subjects for a journal because I have decided to explore twenty-four hours of ordinariness. The common day is more representative of the contents of most of our lives; disastrous ones are rare.
This day holds only one chance of drama. The mail may bring me an early clipping from the New York Times Sunday Book Review about my new novel. Otherwise it promises to have very little memorable about it. But I want to write about it because it is precisely like most of the more than twenty-five hundred days I have lived through on Billings Cove. Only specificity, the details, differ. Still, without special distinction, it is a day in which I find myself unusually aware, at almost every moment, of what is happening in my house, my village, my head. It is one during which there is continuing deterioration in Washington, the city I had left behind, and storms and stresses in the country at large. But my usual distress at political events does not affect me this day. The uneventful calm of the village I have adopted blinds and deafens me to the absurd, unending trial of a famous sports hero for two horrifying murders. In this place I have myself committed a minor act of violence against nature by catching a destructive chipmunk in a Havaheart trap.
In most lives, as in mine, such hypersensitive days are rare. It is as though, for once, our entire selves have been turned inside out, so that subcutaneous layers of awareness are suddenly exposed to the light and heat. If I sit in a quiet room, I do not hear the distant sounds of the furnace, or the refrigerator, or the invasive chipmunks (could it be mice?) playing in the attic. They cannot break through into the unusual stratum of sentience.
On such a day, for some reason, I seem to be unusually conscious of hidden impulses of thought, fear, and memory that fortunately have been buried within me. Suddenly I am prey to the recurrence of old hurts, guilts, regrets. Most of all, I am flooded by nostalgia, by the recall of matters that rise to the surface, causing small pains as acupuncture might, on this day, even if they never have before.
Next month I will be seventy-seven years old. I have lived for almost twenty-five years with the same friend who hovers about the edges of this day but plays no conspicuous part in most of it, partly because she has grown tired of being written about, but mostly because my self-absorption and egotism are so great that on this ordinary yet hypersensitive day I am only dimly conscious of her presence. This accounts for the dominant (often inaccurate) appearance of the first-person singular pronoun.
Persons of an introverted stripe are solitary even when they are in the presence of others. We are alone in a crowd. In the one-act play I am recording here, I am the only performer, even though such a day is densely populated with figures from memory and shades of the past. I have observed that, when I am at work in the solitude of my study, my best companions are those relatives, friends, and acquaintances who live at a distance—and the dead.
I am beginning the seventh year of residence at the end of a peninsula in down east Maine, looking out at a cove that ultimately reaches the sea. I am prevented from seeing wild water by the intervention of an island. I live contentedly in a house that contains all I want of possessions. Myriad windows open out to everything I have any desire for: woods, meadow, garden, water, shore, and the sheltering sky.
I could, surely, put such a sensitive day behind me without recording it anywhere. Or I might ride it out, feeling much like the horseman in Albert Ryder's painting Death on a Pale Horse, in which the white figure is carried forward on the back of a white horse, unable to stop and unwilling to be distracted from its mortal mission.
Or, as I have done here, I can keep a log of what happens this day, what I think and read, hear and remember. At times (thinking this is only fair to the reader) I decide to put away and not record things too terrible to dwell upon, only to discover by evening that they have returned, refusing to be unseated from the memory, clinging to growing darkness like an undislodgeable leech.
Perhaps the reader may think that such diurnal material is more suitable for a notebook one does not intend to look into again. It may be so. But in my life in this day the smallest matters seem to loom large, of a size with the greater recollections that are recorded in small, fine writing in my notes in order to diminish their effect. The frame of a day spent in one place, paradoxically, seems to raise the significance of everything without distinction.
No scale of values exists in such a day. In eighteen hours, everything is compressed by the limits of time. Only the tone in which one lives separates one occurrence from another. At breakfast my intentions for the day ahead may be heavy with dread. But fortunately, the sight of a doe coming out of the woods at noon may give lightness to my lunch and, when it disappears, I will feel free to take a nap. At night, the creak of a board upstairs while I sit in a chair downstairs could be an occasion for the return of apprehension. Small events create moods, and others eradicate them, inexplicably.
I lie in bed, the shade of the window facing the cove pulled up so I can catch the first appearance of the sun's light, a hint of red at the bottom of a dark sky. No real light has yet arrived. On some cold spring mornings I get up before this—it is now 4:34—but today the room is agreeably cool. Under the quilt it is warm. So I am seduced into lying still, my arms under my head, my eyelids fighting to be lowered into sleep.
I begin to rehearse a catalogue of dread matters and fears for the day ahead, an exercise I have indulged in every morning of my adult life before I get up. (Of course, it is also true that this dire review often takes place at a worse hour—two o'clock in the morning—when I am unable to sleep.) During this dawn I cannot remember if I ground the new Costa Rican coffee beans last night while I was drying the dishes. I did dry the dishes, I can remember that, but what about the coffee beans? Dismay moves from my chest to my eyes, which close at the thought that there will be a disastrous delay before I can begin to drink the life-saving, energy-raising brown beverage that should almost be served through an IV to start my day.
The window still shows nothing but black, with the small intervention of a distant light across the cove and its reflection in the water. Should I wait for some sign of daylight? I consider violating my old prescription for getting up. Then I remember that I once decided to call a memoir Staying Put. Today, for some reason, this makes me laugh. I throw off the warm covers, roused to action by amusement. I will stay put no longer. Staying put: how foolish that sounds. Once I looked up its origin in Eric Partridge who informed me that it was a colloquial American expression thought by John Bartlett in the nineteenth century to be "a vulgar expression."
In darkness I leave the bedroom and come to the stairs. Do not fall down them, I instruct myself. I turn on the overhead light and look closely at the rawhide cords on my slippers to be certain they are tied. Don't fall down the stairs, I say to myself again and grip the rail. In my youth I used to race downstairs two steps at a time. Recently, I have had a recurrent dream in which I do this without my feet touching any of the steps and only my hand on the railing anchoring me to the staircase. Without that I might have flown. Now I go down in very slow stages, stopping often and feeling very much like the figure in Duchamps's cubist painting,* except of course that I am fully clothed.
The time will come when it is no longer possible to make this safe descent. Then I plan to take up residence in the newly built room, which now we call the library. Its true name, a subtext to the present state of things—an ample spread of couches, oriental rugs, bookcases, and musical appliances—is the infirmary.
I turn the lights on in the living room and the kitchen, providing me with protection against the early-morning dimness. My ritual in the kitchen is as unvarying as a church rite: check the thermometer, fetch The Book of Common Prayer, fill the glass bottom of the coffeemaker with cold water and its mesh cradle with ground coffee. Here I offer a small orison of thanksgiving that I did grind the beans last night. Press the "on" button (do not laugh—sometimes I have set up the whole mechanism and waited for results before I found I had not pressed the button), go to the refrigerator for two slices of rye bread, margarine, orange juice, and skim milk, and set the toaster going.
There is more to this unvarying ritual. I put a spreader and a plate (my favorite, eight-sided Royal Staffordshire plate, the only one of this make I have, which I bought for 25 cents at a yard sale and which says "dishwasher safe" on the back) at my place, pour milk into a tiny pitcher of which I am foolishly fond and which holds exactly enough liquid for two mugs of coffee, and add juice to a small green glass to which I am equally attached; none of these pieces has any value whatever, except to me.
I pour the hot, fragrant coffee, which always smells better than it tastes, although its effect is unmistakable. I bring everything to the table and sit down, gratefully, at my accustomed place where I get the widest possible view of the sunrise when it comes. I lighten the coffee with milk and put two tablets of NutraSweet into it, and then realize I have forgotten a spoon with which to stir it.
Rats! as my children used to say. Despite my devotion to the ceremony I have established with such care, I seem always to forget something, proving, I suppose, that there are holes in an aging memory that nothing, no amount of planning, will plug up.
I fetch the spoon, sit down again, stir, and open to page 41 of The Book of Common Prayer and begin to read aloud: "Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God, our heavenly Father ..." Then I stop, take a long drink of coffee and a mouthful of toast, and begin again. I paraphrase the introduction to the confiteor as I do precisely at this point every morning because I remember I am alone. I delete the first two words, and begin again: "I have come here ..." By "here" (in place of "together") I mean "at the table in the kitchen in sight of the cove," my cherished place. Then I change the pronoun to "my" heavenly Father.
With no further false starts, I proceed to confess my sins, relishing the sound of whole sentences and partial phrases for their literary elegance: "I have erred and strayed from thy ways like a lost sheep," and "I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done."
Nowhere in the Book do prayers appear to be written in the first-person singular. It assumes that we will all be praying together. Yet, for me, the most honest and satisfying prayer is private prayer, petitions and thanksgivings undisturbed by communal risings and kneelings, by the scrape and movements of others, the adult coughs and sneezes, the cries of babies across the aisle. In early morning solitude, filled with the freshness of the new day, and the energy a long, dark, silent night has pumped into me, I pray to a quiet, attentive God, with the pronouns of the text changed and the confidence that being alone has given me.
I drink orange juice and two mugs of coffee, eating marmaladed toast as I make my way through the prescribed prayers, brushing away crumbs from the gutter of the Book and regretting the growing number of oily spots in the margins. Prayers are part of my breakfast; over the years I have liberally bestowed their pages with bits of other nourishment.
I push the chair back, close the book and stare at the pot of oxalis that stands on the table between my plate and the window. I look up to see the light begin to fill the sky. It moves slowly from the horizon into the bowl of darkness above Deer Isle. In that moment, the clover-shaped leaves of the oxalis, folded during the night into prayer-like postures, have opened into three-leafed flowers. Once again I have missed the action.
In this single pot of red leaves and tiny lavender blooms, I am able to see a whole garden, an entire border of flowers, an enormous bed of every variety. To me, this pot of oxalis is a distillation, a representative (as in the theory of democracy) of a huge constituency of blossoms. This morning, like every other morning in this kitchen for a long time, I recite into the caffeine-scented air:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Is it age, I wonder, that makes me enjoy reduction in almost every aspect of my life? I remember this began one autumn when I discovered a beautiful, changing maple on Rittenhouse Street behind our house in Barnaby Woods in the District of Columbia. It made me wonder why, years ago, my husband always drove our family to Vermont to see the color, the mile after mile of woods full of turning leaves. Was there not one tree in New Baltimore (the village near Albany in which we then lived) that contained within its height and amplitude everything that the whole Granite State could offer to the traveler who had driven fifty miles to witness?
Eternity in an hour. I have become a minimalist of experience. Once I thought I could never travel to all the places I wanted to see, but in old age, the cove, in the variety of its seasons and weathers and times, seems to satisfy my need for new sights.
Infinity in the palm of your hand. Yesterday afternoon, listening to music in the new room, I thought about how my musical taste has suffered a similar sea-change. Season after season in the old Met, called by one contemporary critic "the yellow-brick brewery," I went to hear Der Ring des Nibelungen. I wallowed (is that too denigratory a word?) in the vast, lush, overwrought score, the wordy, rich libretto, the larger-than-life, huge-voiced singers and the garish sets (or what I could see of them from the side of the family circle).
Then under the influence of conductor John Barbirolli and cheap, standing-room tickets to the New York Philharmonic, I began to prefer symphonies and concerti, still on the opulent side of music, but without grand opera decor. In middle age I found I had become fond of chamber music, and in the last few years, listening to a recording of Glenn Gould performing his extraordinary, second version of The Goldberg Variations, I realized that I have again switched my allegiance. Now I prefer the variety, the ample swell and sweet decline, the abundant tones of a single instrument. The world in a grain of sand. Now there is no further retreat possible, except into that antithesis of music: silence. Like everyone else, of course, I will come to that.
The sun is up, and out. It strikes into my eyes, so I have to move my chair away from the view of the cove. I want to read in comfort and watch the finches arrive for breakfast at the two feeders. They are interesting creatures, the only ones who have stayed on faithfully through the cold of winter, with the exception of huge, hardy blackbirds and occasional chickadees. Last year at this time, or a little earlier, I witnessed the astonishing appearance of an evening grosbeak, a member of the finch family, but larger, showier, and alone, without its usual flock. It was a shock, like seeing a visitor from Mars coming across the meadow.
But the finches: At first, having given them only cursory glances at odd times, they seemed simply a flock of similar birds, differing in color (gold and purple in the ones that come here), but not in character.
Excerpted from Life in a Day by Doris Grumbach. Copyright © 1996 Doris Grumbach. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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