August 27, 2007
There it is, the first fiery leaf at the edge of the forest, and only mid-August. And now that I'm looking, I spy several distinctly yellowing popple trees off in the distance, and a shade of purple taking over some of the grand ashes spotted through the canopy. The broken old box elder in the yard is all but bare. I tell myself these are stressed trees, not harbingers. But the field weeds are dying back, too, only the golden rod in its glory, the first fresh monarch butterflies unfolding and drying their wings out of chrysalis.
In parts of China and elsewhere in Asia, people identify five seasons-fall, winter, spring, summer and gold. This weather, this mood, this message in the wind, this is gold, that poignant period at the end of summer that isn't yet fall, but nearly always pushes past the equinox. At 54 years of age it's nice for me to remember (all of sudden) the concept of gold. I'm just not ready for autumn, beautiful as it always is hereabouts, as clear as the air will be, as few insects will be around, as pleasurable the start of autumn life: school, football, Congress back in session, whiffs of death.
Autumn's about letting go, leaves falling, things coming apart, green chlorophyll thinning to reveal red, red thinning to reveal… well, it's death again. But gold's about holding on, holding on in the face of signs subtle and overt. Gold's got its own flowers, subtle things, weedy, perennial, climate adapted. I love a hydrangea, that kind of holding the bloom till as late as possible, blooming through frosts, false youth, drying into beauty. Autumn's the time of migration, of leaving. But gold is the time of new blue jays, new cardinals, new mergansers on the stream, new woodpeckers, new flickers bleating like lambs. These juvenile birds brighten up the morning, missing the bar on the bird feeder and flipping upside down, landing on the book I'm reading and staring at me without alarm, gathering in fives and sixes on branches with their mouths open, not entirely convinced that mom and dad are through with them.
My daughter, Elysia, is six.
54 isn't a landmark age, but it puts me firmly in the gold of my life. My birthday was August 18, a Saturday this year. Elysia woke early, said, "I'm not going to say happy birthday till I've had breakfast and I want pancakes." My father called while I was making them, also mailed me a card timed carefully to arrive the day previous. He'd made it himself on his computer, bright black-and-yellow radiation symbols, caution bars, big black letters:
DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES
OPEN THIS CARD
Of course, the first thing I did was open it. "Still a rebel after all these years," says the kinder font inside, and "Happy Birthday Willy."
It's like I'm six again, reading it, and brief tears spring to my eyes.
Pop is 80. On the phone I tell him I didn't open the card-it said not to. "Kind of scared me. Threw it away."
"But there was a check in there!"
"I should be sending you checks!"
I went swimming in the new gold day, reflected intimations, 54 strokes crawl, 54 strokes breast, 54 strokes on my back, 54 strokes on my side. Which takes me just beyond the middle of the pond, where I'm on my own.
When I speak of gold, I'm not speaking of one's "golden years"-those are older years than mine. "Nothing golden about them," as an elderly student of mine once observed over the farting sounds his colostomy bag was making. I'm just talking about a season, my favorite, something definite that I'll claim as my own.
Ah gold! The (nearly) mosquito-free season, the season of (occasional) crystal nights, the season of (hellacious) sneezes three at a time, the season of bold decline. I say bold because even with your throwing arm thrown and your skin speckled in alarming variety, even with the names of good friends gone missing just when you're going to introduce them to dignitaries, even with thistledown floating off the top of your head, you're at the peak of other powers, powers you may never have had: understanding, tolerance, intuition, intellect, wisdom, compassion, peace.
Or at least you'd like to think so.
Crickets. Did I mention crickets? Cicadas. Honeybees.
And in Maine, tomatoes.
Every year I wade in the stream on my birthday-which as it happens is the first day of gold, at least on my narcissistic calendar-and look for messages. The year Elysia would be born I found a porcelain baby-doll arm, for example, about an inch and a half long, delicate little fist. Other years potsherds with pretty patterns or mysterious words: bridge, last year. This year the stream was flooded on August 18, too high to wade, but a few days earlier, my attention elsewhere, I'd found a plain, half-inch-wide porcelain knob, stained to off-white, hole in the center, top lightly pitted by a century in the dump, then years in the stream, sides still shiny smooth. Unbidden, the picture of a little door came to my mind, something oaken and well made, something you find accidentally in a lost corner of a lost forest, something you find perhaps searching for something else. A little door in a wall of light, key under a toadstool. Opening just big enough for a big person like me to crawl through naked, portal to the rest of my days, everything different on that other side, everything gold.Bill Roorbach's most recent book is Temple Stream (Dial/RandomHouse). He lives in Farmington in an old farmhouse that he tries to keep standing. For more information or to contact him, go to billroorbach.com