Awake

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Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

February 2, 2013 

This begins in the graveyard, which, today, is actually a cheery place. It’s Saturday. It’s sunny. It’s warm for February. There are birds chattering in the trees that are everywhere. Two friends and I are here to read and lie on the grass, to shed the week’s noise.

We walk along the rows of headstones and memorials. The “avenues” have names like Maple, Laurel, and Linden. I think of my eighty-two-year-old professor who lives on the real Linden Street six blocks from here, who, I guess, could live on Linden forever if he wants. How strange that the dead have residences. All the tombstones marked 1797 or earlier were lifted from the New Haven Green, when that burial ground became too crowded. I wonder how much of what we’re walking on now is earth, and how much is bodies, and what these stones actually mean. On some of the grave markers, the letters have crumbled under centuries of wind and rain. These days they say very little.

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We sit beneath a maple tree. The other two open books, and I continue looking down the avenue. It takes sitting still to realize that the true presences in this graveyard are not the headstones, but the trees. The trees — which seem almost as numerous as the stones, and are larger by far. This isn’t a cemetery planted with trees; it’s rather a kind of forest intruded upon. Many of the trees are new, but a few have been here longer than the city has. I look at the ground, where the roots of the maple clasp the earth, and I think about how everything else seems so fake. The “avenues,” the obelisks, the expensive cut headstones. Those things aren’t alive. I have the unmistakable sense that if the dead had souls once, they wouldn’t be anchored to the stones now.

The wind picks up, so my friends and I zip up our jackets and head home. Inside, where it’s warm, we sit by the windows and listen to good music for the rest of the afternoon. We talk about how wonderful glass is — how glass windows let in the sunlight and keep out the cold. And then reading glasses and wine glasses and mirrors. Glass, we realize, is a kind of divine miracle by itself — it starts as thousands of bits of sand, heated so they start vibrating together, until everything actually breaks apart and fuses, and finally the maker blows the glass, breathes into it, literally in-spires, like … I don’t know, Yahweh himself, breathing, “Let there be glass!” This goes on, the sun sets, we laugh, we change the music. Everyone is talking and drinking tea and breathing together, vibrating together, until dinner.

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We head to our favorite restaurant (we save up for meals like this every month) and continue our conversation. We order mostly the same thing and bite into our food at the same time. Everyone is silent as we nosh; the bliss is wordless and shared. We eventually get to talking about umami, the “savory” taste — how it doesn’t have to pertain just to meat, or to food at all. How umami can be hearing a beautiful piece of music and getting chills, or getting into a hot tub and saying ahh. It occurs to me that learning about umami is a rich kind of umami itself.

We text a few friends as dinner winds down, and head back to the house with a legion. We blow the speakers wide open, and the windows, too, and let the talk, like the spirits, flow and flow, a glistening ribbon of amber. There’s dancing, there’s laughter — we talk about how in moments like this, when we put our heads together and breathe in the same space, it’s like flames joining flames and shooting up higher, each of us a little kinetic rift in the atmosphere, feeding on oxygen, burning to connect, burning to share light with everything around us. The music comes down and the poetry comes out. We talk till our throats dry, and wet them with wine. The sunrise is blue, and then bluer, then white — I look out the window and my voice starts crackling because it’s actually been emptied, but my mouth keeps moving, making words of my coughs. My friends just laugh and hand me water.

In the afternoon, I become aware that I’m not quite moving, so much as I’m watching myself move. I’m watching myself hang a towel on a rack, shuffle barefoot over a carpet, sit at a wooden desk … every sensory stimulus feels like a memory. I look out at the sky, which has turned golden; another day, apparently, has gone by. The earth has rolled around again, and it is Sunday.  Now that the house is quiet, now that I realize just how long I’ve been awake and moving, I laugh. I laugh at how this is becoming a habit. I laugh because I understand what it must feel like to be old and getting older. And I laugh because I’m relieved — the feeling is good. I don’t know why I’m compelled to mark the hours as they pass. Twenty-fourth hour awake, thirtieth now, how wild. Then, out of nowhere, thirty-fourth, thirty-sixth. It’s strange knowing that your day has run its course and still being up, moving through it. It really must feel the same as turning seventy-five, thinking that’s it, but then finding yourself, somehow, at eighty. And blinking — eighty-two. Still here, still going.

And it seems clear to me that as surely as I’ll sleep today and wake up tomorrow, my body will die when its time is done and then whatever is me will continue moving onward. I’ve always supposed that this is the case, but I’ve never been so physically sure of it. Dying is just a leaving of the body — the body, which is a beautiful, capable thing, but in the end, just a thing. A rack of skin and bones, a trunk with roots and limbs. My energies, for now, are concentrated through the lens of this particular body. I think of the glass in a microscope or a window on an airplane. Whatever is me — call it a soul, call it anything — looks through the eyes in my head, tastes what my brain is thinking, notes whatever I find beautiful, true. It walks through this narrative for eighty, ninety years, and then, it goes elsewhere. The body will be laid to rest, in a graveyard maybe, but whatever is me will be somewhere else by then.

Other souls that have been in other bodies for the past thousands of years have maybe thought the same, and out of compassion, they’ve left good things for us to look at. They’ve steered us toward what’s important. They’ve made music and literature and art, things that say, We are like you, we’ve learned quite a lot, take this and flourish, make more good things. Because every hour of this day has been beautiful, and everything I’ve loved looking at or talking about has pointed me toward savoring life, being at peace with others.

Back outside the window, it’s nighttime again. As I put my things away and climb into bed, I mark this, my thirty-sixth and final hour. I’m baffled, but I close my eyes exulting. I’m content. I’m alive. And death seems sweet as sleep.

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