Miles To Go Before I Sleep

November 11, 2009

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
†† But I have promises to keep
†† And miles to go before I sleep
(Robert Frost)
†† November. The woods and far off places are calling, but I have Frostís affliction: Duties, and distances.
†† What does it profit a man to sit inside concrete walls when autumn is turning the leaves golden, ocher, sunlit yellows and earthy browns? The Johnson grass is dying back, the grains fallen to earth, and the bobwhites, scarce as they are, pick at them gingerly.
†† I am getting old before my time. Itís not the years accumulated on the road behind me; itís the burdens. In autumn, I always recall Havilah Babcockís declaration, ďMy health is better in November,Ē because that was when the bird season began.
†† November, and the call of fall is persistent, deep and dark. Can you feel the world winding down, drowsy?
†† I love this time of year. It is the most magical, the most haunting of all. There is a sense of thinness within autumn, a feeling that the past, present and future are merging, becoming meaningless. The age seems to fall away, though the colder air makes my joints hurt and burns my nose. More so even than spring, autumn moves me deep in my marrow, and the little connections in my brain that tend to misfire and sputter from time to time are soothed, refreshed.
†† Somewhere in this time of year, in what Ray Bradbury called the October country, and beyond into November, is a world I so miss. I still see hints of it, like when the neighbor and his kids stroll through my back yard and near my old half-fallen oak tree. Because thatís the way it was, no fences, and if there were, we climbed over or through them anyway, and it was fine, we were all a community, all a village. Now and then I hear shots from the bayou side nearby: Someone dispatching a water moccasin, too near the house or the kidís swing set, and I take comfort in the sound, solace in the fact that thereís still a place where it doesnít mean someone died.
†† Thereís more out there like me, men and women who are aging despite their years, sickened by a different kind of virus, a variant strain of despair. I read columns in magazines by Mike Gaddis and the late David Foster, and I know Iím not alone. In November, across this great industrialized nation of teeming masses of inspired shoppers, some of us are wondering why the Christmas season keeps coming earlier and earlier, and there are still folks like me longing for a simpler life and a greater satisfaction from it.
†† If I keep aging like this, in a decade Iíll scarcely be able to survive all the wires strung high along the wooded margins, the trash in the prairie meadows, the sick film of slime over stagnant waters once bursting with fish. The changes in this world are forcing me to stoop; my knees donít extend all the way back anymore, and I am going deaf because what Iíve heard is too much to bear. A decade after that, Iíll scarcely be able to open my door to find November, walk through the thin places within it.
†† So I leave work, go home and sit outside until darkness, but it isnít enough anymore. And thereís no way out of it. Iím locked up, shackled, have to work until I can afford to retire, because you canít live simply anymore. Sometimes, in the twilight of a week night when Iím regretting many of the choices Iíve made along the road behind me, I dream of a life as a gentleman farmer, a steward of the land and waters; or a rancher, or a park ranger. Silly, I know. But in my mindís eye, I remember trudging through corn stubble just off the reservation, looking for bobwhites, and the farmer would stop by, high on the seat of his tractor, his straw hat tilted back on the crown of his head, and heíd inquire about my mom and dad, maybe send me home with a few yellow ears, oh, so sweet. If I were smoking cigarettes behind a tree, or handling my gun dangerously, my dad would know about it before I got home.
†† Will I be too frail and thin to enjoy this Shangri La called retirement? Will I ever even make it there? Thereís no way to know. In autumn, I can almost reach out and touch it across the folded arc of time, where the ends have come much closer to each other and are far less viscous. I can smell coffee hand-ground in my grammaís old kitchen; elderberry wine uncapped from my grandpaís winemaking setup; horses back in the stables, and an old black tomcat sleeping under the pecan tree.
†† So I work, and I give, and I get paid, and in the end, I may have nothing to look back on but the work and the pay. The notion terrifies me. In November, I can feel the time slipping away behind me like melting snow.
†† ďYouíre not old,Ē I remind myself. ďWet behind the ears yet, some would say.Ē But Frostís verse echoes in my ears, reminding me grimly: Miles to go before I sleepÖ
†† Better to live a pauperís life free and unfettered? Or trod on, against the odds, in search of the dream? The American Dream. My parents were likely the last generation to experience it, and even then in emasculated form. Whatís left to us? Wars, and rumors of wars; bloodbaths on military bases, in places of businesses; considerations of parole for a rapist who left his 6-year-old victim in a frozen field 19 years ago; a gloriously ridiculously oxymoronic news article revealing that itís not necessarily lack of exercise making kids obese, rather its over consumption. What difference does it make?
†† November. I could just reach through it, punch a hole in its fabric, and wrench back the long-ago. The soon-to-be-gone. I miss the smell of horse blankets and saddle soap; fresh sawn cypress and shellac; the sound, soft as kitten paws, of a wooden boat as it drifts among stands of cypress and tupelo in primordial green-black water.
†† Autumn-tinted leaves tumble across the back yard, toward the bayou; cedar smells resplendent when I crumble the needles in my hand; far and away in the distance, a shrill little call of some bird; November, and I could put a pack on my back and head some place half-real, were I not so exhausted.
†† The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
†† We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
†† History to the defeated
†† May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
(W.H. Auden)