not this, not that

Posted by on May 9, 2012

Georgetown flowerbed

Georgetown flowerbed © 2012 Julia Mason Wickes.


Not This, Not That

by Mary Oliver

Nor anything,
not the eastern wind whose other name
is rain,
nor the burning heats of the dunes
at the crown of summer,
nor the ticks, that new, ferocious populace,

not the President who loves blood,
nor the governmental agencies that love money,

will alter

my love for you, my friends and my beloved,
or for you, oh ghosts of Emerson and Whitman,

or for you, oh blue sky of a summer morning,
that makes me roll in a barrel of gratitude
down hills,

or for you, oldest of friends: hope;
or for you, newest of friends: faith;

or for you, silliest and dearest of surprises, my
own life.

* * *

Right now around DC roses are blooming, not just here or there, in isolated patches. The pervasive nature of roses in our neighborhood cannot be under-emphasized. In the same vein as T. S. Eliot’s cruel April, it seems a cruel kind of May. The group of fellows and their families we arrived with in the fall is dispersing and, after this week, will no longer exist as a group, bound by a common location. This is probably less sad for me than it is for most others because the pattern of my life here has revolved mostly around my own family and of course, I’ll be taking that with me.

But yesterday the family across the hall flew home to Italy and I was emotional. The most emotional moment for me was when my oldest daughter gave their oldest son a hug goodbye before she left for school in the morning. Tears welled up in my eyes unexpectedly. It wasn’t that Esme and Matteo were inseparable companions. There was an age difference (they attended different schools) as well as a language barrier. But it was the fact that they had scribbled with crayons from the same crayon box, fought over the same toys, jumped on the same beds, slid on their stomachs down the same awful, puke green stairs in the corridor of our apartment building, watched videos on youtube from the same laptops, run back and forth slamming doors between our two apartments, finagling snacks from the hands of the adults, and, sweetly and mischievously by turns, shared a life shaped by the same place and patterns for the greater part of a year. And now–contrary to their ability to understand or contextualize–that world will be whisked away without a trace and be displaced by an altogether new reality of place and people, one here in America and the other in Italy. But the distance in miles is only an extraneous detail. It would be a similar loss if they were moving even as little as 100 miles away. It is astonishing how small we are as human beings, and the unavoidable logistical role proximity plays in the bare bones reality of who we ultimately bond with. There is just something irreplaceable about being neighbors.

I know that these kinds of losses are a part of life and grieving them, well or badly, is our guaranteed birthright as human beings, but it still makes me wistful. I suppose if I’m being completely honest I am not nearly as interested in protecting myself from these sad goodbyes as I am protecting my children. I have enjoyed the adventure of being here, and would do this again at some point in the future, and I know that I will carry this experience inside of me because it becomes part of a story that I have the power to articulate to myself. As adults, we sign up for these things knowing all the costs in advance, but it is hard to watch children, powerless to understand, grow settled in a place and accustomed to people, to take those people into their hearts, only to wake up one day and find them gone. This morning when we suggested to our three year-old that we would go to the park, she said, “With Mila!” Just as I suspected, the repeated warnings about how Mila would soon be moving to Italy proved entirely ineffectual.

I had planned to sit down today and write about other, less personal things that have been much on my mind. I wanted to reflect on a Wendell Berry lecture we attended a few weeks ago at the Kennedy Center, a Frontline documentary we watched online, and an article I read in the Atlantic, all of which are very interesting and which, in my mind at least, I would tie together nicely in one form or another. I suppose that would be more impressive, if I pulled it off. But today I find myself extremely sleepy, not to mention short of time. So instead, for Poetry Wednesday, which I am already now a little slack in hosting, since it is past two in the afternoon, I offer up, as usual, a very small sliver of my ever forward-moving life and heart and what is going on there today.

  1. A M B E R
    May 9, 2012

    First, you posted Mary Oliver's *Not This, Not That* and I posted her *One or Two Things*, a coincidence of not just the poet, but of the title.

    Second, I am glad you post about the less "impressive" parts of your life, because I do not think these things are truly less impressive. And besides, I like looking in on your life from a far, and not only your thoughts. Of course, I am waiting for the Wendell Berry post!

  2. Evelina
    May 10, 2012

    It seems that they were nice people, those Italian neighbors :).

    But (I am thinking about this part: "There is just something irreplaceable about being neighbors.") I remember a neighbor that I used to have once, a chatty middle-aged housewife who would appear out of the blue and start complaining about her headache in the most inappropriate moments – early in the morning, as we were going out, and were late, to bring the kids to school and go to work; or at noon, as I was dragging my tired and unfriendly kids up the stairs, she would pop up out of her door and start talking to us. Well-intended, for sure. Boring, unfortunately, as well. So she is an example of a neighbor that I replaced quite easily and happily.

    Julia, it was so funny and sad to read your post! Those precious door-slamming moments are not lost, they are stored in our hearts!