There is a young girl in my neighborhood who may be found, rain or shine, in hot weather or cold, upon the swing at the park. I suppose this isn’t too odd — we all can be inordinately fond of certain things, and she just likes to swing. Still, every time I see her I am concerned, if only in the way a stranger can be, at such singleminded zeal.
I saw her one recent midwinter evening when snow covered the ground. People were returning home from work, and you could see slender wisps of smoke trickling out of the chimneys as their houses brightened with lights. The snow redeemed the landscape: All the dirt and grime were covered. The whiteness sharpened one’s perception of the land, erasing small accidental features and bringing out the larger context, the shape of the land, this tall tree, the bend in the river.
I walk there by the river, tromping on half-shoveled pavements, looking up at the bare trees. Going up a hill past the park where kids played all last summer, I saw her. She sang in a voice that was thin and reedy. She reminded me of a bird flailing to the air. Some day that kid is going to go over the top of that swing, I thought. Either that or she’ll break loose, take off into the sky and fly away.
When you are young, you have few immediate options about your life. You learn to cope any way you can. Once, in another part of the world, there was another kid who felt the same way. He was 12 years old and had just the biggest falling out ever with his father. The fight was serious enough to make him consider his options. The circus never came to his hometown, he had less than $5 in savings and the Rocky Mountains were more than 10,000 miles away; there seemed to be no way for him to get there.
He had nothing but time and mind and spirit — the mind and spirit of a boy aware of how dependent he was on circumstances beyond his control, who knew that time was an ally and patience a weapon.
So in his anger and distress he made a pact — between himself and life or God or whoever was in charge of making such deals with little children then. And the pact was, he would stay as long as he had to and would hone his mind and spirit in preparation for the day when he could leave home. He would trade his time and youth for a ticket out. Since anger was an antidote to his fear, he vowed to stay angry.
Like countless other teenagers, he promised that he would never be like his father. He waited. He grew up, finished high school, and at 19 left home for college.
There are certain promises that one should consider carefully before making, for they carry consequences beyond any that can be foreseen. In the lonely moments of his college years, he remembered the pact and used it the way a person uses a fire for warmth and focus. Amid the transience of his life then, the pact stood immutable; it defined him — it was the star by which he gained his bearings. And anger sustained him.
By chance he discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. Here, he thought, was someone who understood what he felt — the sheer raw emotion and overwhelming desire to devour the world. Wolfe uttered what was mute within him when he wrote passages like: “For America has a thousand lights and weathers and we walk the streets, we walk the streets forever, we walk the streets of life alone.”
If one thinks of snow as time, then memory is the landscape upon which time falls. As within the landscape, we use particular emblems of memory to know where we are and how we got there. Then time enhances vision, erasing petty details, spreading and covering memory to reveal the shape of the whole, bringing perspective.
Time also tinges the past with doubt and regret. One wonders where all the certitude and rage of youth went. I am less sure now that I understand life, or the world and the way it works, or the appropriateness of cutting deals with Providence. All I am sure of is that anger feeds upon hunger and leaves one empty.
I have not read Wolfe in years. Those early years seem distant and strange now, a different life in another country. If I were to form a pact today, it would be the litany of longing written by the poet Theodore Roethke: “I would unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and hatred; / I would believe my pain: and the eye quiet on the growing rose; / I would delight in my hands, the branch singing, altering the excessive bird; / I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.”
The Rockies were better than I had ever imagined them. One summer I drove with a friend over a 12,000-foot pass in Colorado in a state of happy delirium, brought on by the view and the lack of oxygen at that altitude. The scent of pine and the shimmer of aspen leaves etched long traces in my mind.
I wish that girl on the swing well. My heart goes out to her. If I could be so bold, I would tell her that I have some idea of what it is like. I would tell her that my prayers are with her. I hope one day she flies free.
Victor Soon received his doctorate in engineering at Notre Dame shortly before this piece was first published.