Sunday, September 20, 2009


Yesterday, we took the kids to the Antietam Battlefield, which is situated well north of DC in the rolling hills of Maryland: Frederick, Sharpsburg, Boonsboro. All of these towns several lives away from the life we lead--Boonsboro itself with its narrow main streets and brick houses that predate the Civil War lining the road, close and trim with old-fashioned windows with deep sashes.

We arrived two days after the 147th anniversary of the battle, a fact of which we were not aware when we left the house. This was a spontaneous trip for us, something we're not good at. Spontaneity used to be what I considered a full life must include. That has gradually been drained and dredged out of us over the last ten or more years. Spontaneity, in fact, for a while was more directly related to the machinations and surprise occurrences of Robert's unknown illness, thus, a thing to be feared.

Nonetheless, we have been mighty spontaneous the last few weeks. And, that morning, we just thought sometime after breakfast had rolled past, the customary lazing about because Saturday morning always feels like a lull in the storm, we just thought that we'd do something on a fall day with a blue sky and the lingering press of summer warmth in the air.

This last pressing of the summer through the sluice of slightly cooler days yields a few more free hours before the complications of winter set in. Winter with its heavy coats, layers, snow days, and inaccessible sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots. Summer's closure, as it were. Some last moments of freedom and warmth I might take as memory to my grave.

At Antietam, 23,000 people were casualties of a single afternoon. The bridge captured by General Burnside is a short triple-arch over a deep stream sheltered in a hollow from winds and breezes and whatever other natural passings-by might ripple it. Which is to say that the water is untroubled. Trees and a gravel path down to the bridge, hillocks angling up and gently forested in green and, yes, sepia. It's the stuff of postcards and perfect snapshots. It's also the stuff of absolute and lasting peace. At least that afternoon with the sun shining on a green world about to lift like a patina and show red and brown and gold.

These times with Robert are like a reprieve between battles and storms--life stabilized for weeks or months and the living of it in that calm, still valley like a waking dream shapeshifting in the air and looking back at the shadows the shapes of which we recognize and looking forward to shadows as yet indefinable.

I don't think of Keats' blowzy Autumn writhing on a threshing floor when this time of year approaches. Instead, I think of Lowell's poem, "Obit," with its unabashed longing for what is past to remain suspended in the always present:

Our love will not come back on fortune's wheel--

in the end it gets us, though a man know what he'd have:
old cars, old money, old undebased pre-Lyndon
silver, no copper rubbing through . . . old wives;
I could live such a too long time with mine.
In the end, every hypochondriac is his own prophet.
Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness, painful "It was. . . . "
After loving you so much, can I forget
you for eternity, and have no other choice?

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