It began quietly enough, with a certain restlessness, a reluctance to re-establish routine, an inability to focus on the tasks at hand.
I’d been traveling, wheeling across the Mississippi Delta for days, peripatetic as a dream, imbibing the sheer movement, the joys of impulsivity and intense expectation like some heady, intoxicating brew. Eventually, the party ended and it was time to sober up. Home again at my desk, I barely could turn to look out the window at the familiar view I love so much. During our separation it had transformed itself from placid scenery into a token of my discontent, a nagging reminder of how many paths remained to be traveled.
Gazing through my window I felt, if not imprisoned, at least boxed-in and frustrated. It didn’t help that just as my travels had ended, others were beginning their own journeys in a flurry of anticipation and excitement. The destinations, romantic and compelling, seemed unattainable as the stars: Librizzi and London, La Paz, Paris, Giverny and Montreal. On the other hand, from my perspective, San Antonio might as well have been Segovia, or New Orleans, Nova Scotia. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had escaped once but my guards, Responsibility, Necessity and Guilt, weren’t about to let it happen again.
Weeks passed. The sun rose higher into the sky, scorching pavements and emptying the afternoon streets. The cicadas’ drone and thrum, the white noise of summer, stuttered and fell silent as doves huddled into shadows of the schefflera and spiders stopped tending their webs. Each evening, as the unforgiving sun sank below the false horizon of the rooflines and the hot afternoon wind began to lay, a certain sultry resentment, a despair as stifling as the rising, humid dampness of the night left me asking the question of asthmatics in a Houston summer – would I ever breathe freely again?
Glancing out the window one evening, I was startled by a sudden, vertiginous impulse toward flight. The clouds above had opened like an escape hatch, and just as a single seagull circled up and up again, I was pulled skyward, filled with a longing to sweep and soar through the widening gap. Earthbound, held by chains of love and responsibility as much as by lack of wings, I settled back, resigned to being grounded by life.
As October days shorten and nights grow cool, the darkness deepens and the night begins to breathe, its respirations short and shallow, imperceptible as the breezes sighing across the water. With my window open, I hear the sound of fish tumbling and the chatter of birds newly arrived from the North. Imagining the taste of Hill Country apples, smelling the damp rot of leaves along the creeks and the dust of plowed-under crops, feeling the rhythm of a walking bass line and the click of tires on old, patched roads I’m seized by an unbearable longing to leave, to go, to move – to migrate from what is to what will be, and see the sights from a new perspective.
But the word is clear: I cannot go. Not now, not yet. For just a little while, the rising of the sun and the setting of the moon will take place here, in this time, in this place, while I remember, and dream away the nights.
But if I cannot go, I have my window and my world. In a lovely bit of irony I also have, quite literally, a third-story perspective from which to frame my images. “It is the panorama of life..seen from the third storey window that delights me,” says Virginia Woolf in The Waves, and her words delight me as surely as their own observations delight her characters.
“Look at the spider’s web on the corner of the balcony,” said Bernard. “It has beads of water on it, drops of white light”
“The leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears,” said Susan.
“A shadow falls on the path,” said Louis, “like an elbow bent.”
“Islands of light are swimming on the grass,” said Rhoda. “They have fallen through the trees.”
‘The birds eyes are bright in the tunnels between the leaves,” said Neville.
“The stalks are covered with harsh, short hairs,” said Jinny, “and drops of water have stuck to them.”
One implication of The Waves is unavoidable. The world is not only there, it is here – in the palm that shelters the parrot and dove, in the sinking, sultry sun, in the extravagant clouds and the ethereal moon pinned like an ornament to Venus’ belt. And if frustration or pique, impatience or suffocating ennui should rise above my life like a threatening cloud, there always is my window, for perspective and new vision.
The tension between freedom and necessity, desire and responsibility, never is more clear than in situations we have not chosen but have had thrust upon us by life. To cope with economic hardship, to raise a child, to care for an aging parent, to fulfill the demands of justice or mercy despite impossible circumstance: each of these requires judgment and discipline, and a willingness to believe, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all manner of things will be well”.
And so, nearly consumed with longing while absolutely constrained by limits, I hang suspended between memory and imagination, past and future, dreams and obligations. In his exploration of Lancelot Lamar’s madness, Walker Percy writes,
“To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle.”
For the present, this is my world, my reality: to do my work, to care for a parent, to read, to write, and to wait. Like the threading of a needle it requires steadiness and vision, and a willingness to endure occasional pain.
But if, as Louis says, a shadow falls on the path like an elbow bent, Rhoda’s islands of light still swim on the grass. And of course there is Virginia, reminding me of my gift of a window, and a third-story window at that. It remains my obligation to look.