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The Leaden Hat of Fall

The cold lingers here day after day, a metaphor of old age or illness. Your limbs are heavy, the shoes go on your feet reluctantly. The bed lies there still warm from sleep, with the quilt jumbled up, and the pillows looking like so many unanswered questions. Outside, under the shale-colored clouds, the world looks distant, hardened by the shrunken sun and the muddy ruts, which almost look kiln-hardened. The poor worms are tucked away in some recess of the dark, waiting for spring.

All those glorious promises of relief after Trump have withered away, in part from the harsh judgments of newspaper headlines, in part from the stubborn, unyielding resistance of the Republicans in both houses. Now comes news that the southern states are all gerrymandering their congressional districts to win back the house come 2022. It makes me shiver to think that what is now a government frozen like a Yukon ferry landing will grow even more rigid. Who wants to live through even more years of stagnation and dysfunction? Is all this a prelude to some triumphant return to power by a man whose name I can't even mention these days? Steve Bannon is baiting his captors with the taunts of one longing to sacrifice himself for the cause, for the undoing of our already shredded democratic institutions.

All those impassioned insurrectionists are awaiting their battle orders. I recall the lines from Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," where he laments that "the best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Or as the poet Charles Olson grumbled back in the 1950s, " a pudor pejorocracy" has come to power, meaning a shameful regime of the worst malefactors. Lillian Hellman called that period "Scoundrel Time" in her account of the McCarthy years. Well, we're back, it seems, and there's little one can do except hope that some of our timid Democrats will find the courage to push through Biden's agenda and win back a vulnerable, easily manipulated wedge of the electorate willing to sit out the vote and watch things fall apart.

The hare poking its nose through the brittle weeds has no idea what is afoot in the human world. It is best to sniff around for an errant carrot to nibble on. A bird the color of house dust is twittering away in forlorn notes on the gaunt, leafless branch of an elm not far from here. I hear his plaintive notes and wonder who he is warning of my coming footsteps. There's no one about. He's like me when I was kid, wearing my summer jacket and shivering as I stumbled along to the local park hoping to find some idle friends to pal around with. But the woods are silent, like Uighur settlements, or those devastated Rohingya towns after the Myanmar military drove everyone away. I need a brandy, maybe a pipe to pull on and blow a few blue clouds of smoke into this sacristy I call a living room.

I once followed my mother into a Carmelite convent to visit her niece, a cloistered nun who rarely, if ever, had visitors. She stood behind a stout fence in the lobby, and talked in a sweet voice, answering my mother's questions about family. This is where Mother Cabrini once directed the sisters to found an orphanage for immigrant children, and who was later made a saint. She was the patron of immigrants in the U.S., for her help in caring for newly arrived Italians in New York. Her chair sits there in a corner with a sash across it. The room was cast into a perpetual six o'clock gloom, even though it was sunny outside and full of the usual New Orleans carnival laughter. Here was winter and deprivation, and below, in the caverns where the nuns lived their lives, the promise of spiritual ecstasy lay down some passage of the mind where prayer would reveal heaven's unlocked gate. The woman was not much older than I was, angelic and pure as a trickling brook in the Italian Alps. She had escaped from the turmoil, the excesses, the lures, the serpent's seductive words. I couldn't wait to get back to it all, to embrace this fallen world of the senses and smother my face in all the inducements of mortality.

One may live in winter the year round, if you so choose. The person I listened to as she recited her mechanical answers to questions about a world that she had long left behind was hardly attached to her own skin. She was eager to return to the even starker gloom below ground, where heaven oiled its hinges with the tears of devotion. Snow was falling down there, drifting in heaps against the bare, unvarnished doors of the cells. The women moved about in silence, heads bowed, black habits flowing behind them like bleak shadows, the kind you see blackening the sidewalks in mid-December.

Once in a while the tufted sky would break open into dazzling radiance. I would often look up from my reading to behold a waterfall of fiery light, as if the Golden Fleece were hanging in a waterfall shedding all its precious minerals into the valley below. Jason would be eager to steal this robe and to spirit it back to the Argo for the trip home. But gold is never trustworthy; this gold that I beheld was already vanishing as even heavier clouds were repairing the dismal canopy over me. It was like watching the tall windows of my classroom fade well before three o'clock, and then begin to drizzle with heavy gray pellets of sleet. That meant the long walk home getting drenched, gritting my teeth, opening the front door to come into the house where a stew was simmering on the stove for tonight's supper. Mother taking a nap, house in a deep coma of fatigue from an uneventful day. To sit in such suspension with a glass of milk and a ginger snap was hardly the solace I yearned for. The alley was covered in a moss of half-frozen rain, with the puddles trembling in the fuzzy glare. The hour could hardly move the hands of the clock. But think of it -- the mid-autumnal despair of this moment was not eternity, it was time evaporating at its own pulse, crawling on its knees toward some overhanging eave where it could sleep.

On the radiator was a Christmas catalog full of gaudy pictures of wreaths and wrapped presents. Girls wore new shirts and blinded the camera with their radiant smiles. Boys were admiring their shiny new bb rifles, and resting an elbow on a new English touring bike draped in tinsel. It was the kind of Eden only merchants could imagine, with price tags hanging from all the promises of joy. There were boxes of cookies, and erector sets, a model train puffing smoke and running around at the base of a Christmas tree, its gondolas loaded with still more presents. I turned the pages idly, without feeling much desire for anything in these harshly lit glimpses of joy. My only reference to reality was the street below the window, with its glazed autos and trickling gutters. Soon we would be gathering with relatives for Thanksgiving, and then the powerful tidal surge of anticipation tugging at all of us as the Christmas season began. I smelled pumpkin spice and cinnamon, and saw my first plate of pigs' ears in the cupboard. That was for tonight, I heard my mother say behind me, as she stood there in her puffy, sleep-logy face. Yes, I said, I know.

Meanwhile, the gray steel-shavings of the woods, the pale trees, the slag heaps of the first hills east of us were arrayed before me. Nothing could deter the orderly priority of the seasons. I was at the foot of some gigantic replica of Mother Cabrini with her hands outstretched to bless the desperate children that were her mission in life. Such wintry misery was a weight on her soul, and she was there to hold back the fury of despair as long as she could. But the ice gathered its armies below the horizon and waited for night before encroaching upon us. I heard the nuns singing their prayers in the depths of the earth, pleading for heaven to reveal itself as the chill air enveloped their arms and faces.

When the Christmas tree was put up in the corner of the living room, I saw for the first time that it was a figure out of a dream, a tree laden with fruit, not glass bulbs, signaling the promise of fertility to come. I saw the tree as the reborn god, emerging from the land of the dead, bringing plums and apples, heaping the floor with promises of affection. I was at that moment reassured, even though I merely stood there with my hands in my pockets. It felt good to know what the symbols meant, and that the tinsel was snow, and the globes twinkling under the strings of lights were the fruits of Eden.


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