Stepping Out

 

 

 

 

 


Our life is short, and our days run

As fast away as does the sun;

And, as a vapor or a drop of rain

Once lost, can ne're be found again

Robert Herrick, 1648

 

 

I

 

The end of the school year is near. I can see it in the children dancing around the playground, enhanced with the dying year's most provocative promise. Spring's final pinch ended this morning with the last rainfall we'll see in months; only the daffodils by the gutter know better of the drought that will kill them but release the children from the bondage of books and learning. The children know that a new summer will soon be upon them, and their actions on the playground are more telling of this than ever before. Each playful word is louder and stretches into a song at the jump rope, and from the four-square patch on the blacktop, every word breaks up into naked syllables of hoots and shouts and cheers. Everyone is playing. Everyone is happy. Or, at least, most everyone.

 

Claire Boone, our third-grade teacher, often sits alone at recess on a bench near a sand box. I have noticed her before with children huddling so earnestly around her. Most days she brings along a small book, insisting the children play together so she can be alone for a while, just for a little while. For nearly the whole term she has rested there every dry afternoon, sipping something refreshing from a tall cup and reading a paragraph or two from the book that rests so often upon her lap. The book is a pretense it seems to keep the children at bay, to enjoy the space around her like an unexploited hobby, cherished but never endorsed, never completely realized.

Her duty to the children is clear. Less clear is her duty to the book which often closes lightly upon a finger as soon as the children disperse within the playground. Maybe in a minute or two she'll get back to it, to whatever it is trying to tell her. But I imagine it will have to wait until tomorrow.

I've watched her before from the storage room's window, sitting with her book and a tall cup of tea. Today she appeared especially frustrated with her hair, or perhaps with just the wind. She sat with her legs crossed, book lapped comfortably in the palm of her skirt and a hand pressed against her forehead as if searching for a fever.

I cannot begin to understand in what way our paths may cross, yet in some strange way I am certain that they will. I have never met Mrs. Boone before and suspect that I never will, not directly or formally anyway. On occasion we have shared a courteous nod upon passing in the hallway or on the sidewalk outside the post-office or grocery store. I have seen her a time or two with her husband at a church or school function. She is always cheerful, in a distant, polite sort of way. But today while staring at her from my secret window, I caught her unawares. I caught her honesty; and like a veil pulled from a piece of art, her grace and patience, so professionally maintained, disappeared so suddenly and so completely that I was almost surprised to see in her unguarded expression a sadness and fatigue not common in Valencia. I was ashamed for a moment to have seen this, to have seen something so utterly private in her demeanor which had betrayed her more deeply than she could apparently perceive.

In some vague, nagging way, I sense a kinship between us; a kinship that I'm certain she would feel if it were I sitting with a closed book on a bench and she peering down at me from this unusually clear window. I wondered if this kinship, so clandestine yet so universal, was her ineffable betrayor.

Most days I feel as though I'd been set on a path that crosses no other. But now, I am not so certain. Parallel to my own path I find Mrs. Boone sitting with her book on a park bench. We travel a course unknown to one another and unaware of that peculiar presence that comes like a light shinning into a dark alley, searching for something more discernable than a shadow or a reflection or a glaring puddle in the street. I wonder what this presence could be. I wonder what it may mean.

 

Claire Boone is now in her late 50's but it is easy to imagine her as a child in this very playground, rallying around her own teacher who pretended for her own reasons to be reading a small book she had bought solely for dry afternoons like today.

There was plenty of work to do I suppose, but I neglected it anyway to stand in the storgage room's window. In spite of my guilt for being so lazy and intrusive, I stayed put for almost an hour watching the children and their teacher from my dark and secret place.

Eventually, she stood up and raised her hand. The children recognized the sign and gradually gathered around the bench. After reciting a few predictable instructions on forming a line, Mrs. Boone answered a question from a chubby little boy in a baseball cap and then directed the leader to open the door. A tall girl in black boots and a yellow dress led the group inside while their teacher emptied her cup into the grass and vanished into the doorway behind them.

 

I struggled a bit to open the old window, the dusty crank stuck as though it were cemented to itself. But I persevered and it slowly swung open as if it were afraid, like a new life-form awakening to a strange new world outside its den. A cold breeze lingered into the storage room and I leaned into it, welcomed it, kissed it, spoke to it, attempting to communcate some liberating gesture that would carry the children's playfulness, their energy, and faith and hope up into the branches and into the storage room. I had hoped it would bring me out of my self-imposed darkness and down into the playground, reaching for some sign of joy and life.

I returned to the library, grabbed a small book indescriminately and descended the stairs to the playground. I took Mrs. Boone's place on the bench, crossed my legs and rested the book on my lap. I had hoped to pick up on her residual energy, the boundlessness of her pupils, the chemistry of the moment. But there was only myself, my own energy begging for an outlet, a way to escape the inebriating effect of my own desires.

It was a beautiful afternoon to escape within or to simply hide out in. But I was too caught up in the moment, or in the promise that there might actually be a moment to really hold on to, a moment within my reach no matter how I understood it. How else could I reach her without reaching myself? Was there a way to step outside myself and into the consciousness of Claire Boone? It's lunacy, I know. Nothing but my own cowardice, my own intermidable laziness that keeps my faith in love so deeply suppressed that I can hardly escape the possibility that I'm in love with my own despair.

It's funny how often I do this to myself—psyche myself into believing that I can slip out of my own life and into someone elses by some unknown magic lying dormant deep within me. My talent, or gift must be the tiny bit of mystery that gives my life certification and makes me believe that I'm special. Surely, I couldn't be special without it. Surely, it's there. Surely, that is my gift. Surely, it's that simple, to shed my skin like a snake, to seek out a bigger and better skin in which to live, a new skin that incites love, that lets me flex my emotional muscle and elevates me in stages as if I were climbing some magical stairway to a perfectly fullfilling life. However, the only inspiration I presently felt came as a whisper from the storage room window saying, "get a life." I sat for a few more minutes looking for ghosts in the playground before I realized how lovely a day it was to finally reconcile with reality—a reconciliation that was long overdue.

I looked up from my seat to the storage room window and there it was peering down at me: my kinship with Mrs. Boone emanating from the open window, smiling at me, confirming the truth of my melancholly in a rainbow of heiroglyphs that I could finally understand. That was the peculiar presence I felt while staring out the window, or so I reasoned. It was nothing more than the presence of loneliness; that peculiar presence made familiar as though it were standing in front of a mirror looking back at me like a tableau from my childhood; that peculiar presence not detected by magic but simply recognized like smoke billowing from a fire. The illusion of shadows and reflections is nothing more than a recollection—a missing piece of a puzzle filled in by my own imagination, my own sense of reason, my own superstitions made real by my own understanding of who I really am. Truth therefore becomes my own ineffable betrayor, not hope or faith or desire as I had always assumed.

 

From now until May, days and nights will look more promising on the calendar than from beyond this cold window.