I've just finished listening, for the first time in months, to one of those records that will never let me go: Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream (2004), whose oscillation between hope and despair defined an important, though thankfully past, season of my life. God, that was several years ago now, and I am metaphorically in a different place, but oh, dear reader, I am literally in the same one, stuck in this hollow that tests the semantic field of that word, trees newly bare and faces (one by one, as I hiked this afternoon) closed down and cold. Listening to Patty sing about the places she wants out of, places she may even have chosen, is all my little heart can bear on this dark, dark evening.
There was a time when "Useless Desires" was my anthem; it would rattle the speakers in my car. "The weekend edition," Patty would wail, "has this town way overrated," and I would pass the co-op with my windows rolled down and make some poor lady's flax flutter. Tonight, though, I was raised up out of my reading by two songs toward the end of the disc: "Florida," an old favorite, where two girls drive down A1A "into the arms of Florida," and the refrain marvels at how "I still hang around here / And there's nothing to hold me," and, quieter but also more damning, "Mother of God," where the voice in the song admits, "When I was eighteen I moved to Florida / Like everyone sick of the cold does / And I waited on old people waiting to die / I waited on them until I was." That suspense at the stanza's end still makes me shiver. Until I was old? Until I was waiting to die?
I am not, God knows, anywhere near Florida; and I am not waiting to die; and I am not old, although I have a new little crease beneath my left eye that greets me each morning. I am caught between the voices of these songs; caught, too, by the preacher in C. E. Morgan's recent novel _All the Living_, who says, "I know you are despairing, too... What looks like patience tastes like despair."
But there is good news here. Tastes are not permanent. The coffee I've been drinking (which does not taste like despair) will fade on my tongue, if not on my breath, before I've finished writing these few paragraphs. But there is also, thankfully, better news than the fact that everything fades. Without stopping the car, without exactly alleviating the sickness that drives us on and away, there are other folks who show up on the A1A or the 101 (I love these highway palindromes) and share the song, make the trip easier. Sometimes they even, with their words or with their hands, hold us for a while.
I had the chance last week to spend some time with someone whose writing I've loved for a long time, and she was, small miracle, even lovelier in person than in print. As we walked through dead leaves on that grey afternoon, after she had spoken about the hands that held and, holding them, created the books of the past--a particular past, a medieval one, that nonetheless doesn't stop touching ours--it felt as though we could have been heading into the arms of Florida, or Texas, or California. But, wherever we ended up, there would be some hope of holding there: something to get us beyond the romance of patience and its attendant taste of despair.
That hope is what is implicit in the closing couplet of "Mother of God": "I get up every morning with my cup of coffee / And talk to the Mother of God." I do not talk to the Mother of God every morning, although I admire the puzzle of that genitive. (Which comes first? The Mother or the God?) If I talk to someone while I'm making coffee, it is, more often than not, my still-sleeping blue-eyed boy, three thousand miles away, who could only be compared to the Mother of God if I were to borrow Oscar Levant's line about Doris Day. (I knew him before he was a virgin.) Occasionally I talk to my imaginary greyhound, Lucille, who could easily be a remnant of an unwritten Lorrie Moore story. But I talk--this is the point--to someone, real or imagined, whose company is an index, a foretaste, pointing toward a new horizon, beyond but also, magically and mercifully, within the coffee cup. The world expands.
This is the antidote to the taste of despair. (Often, I admit, it tastes a little like wine.) It is prospective but not immaterial. My mom leaves a sweet or silly voicemail; some friends and colleagues, known and unknown to me, take time out of their busy lives to sit around a table with me and talk about something I wrote, words I could never have imagined touching them. Imagine the joy and the panic, the gratitude and the cup crashing to the floor, when the Mother of God talks back.