Riding my bike home from work yesterday into a thirty mile per hour headwind (with gusts to 44, according to the National Weather Service), I realized that no combination of my fitness level and my bike’s gears were going to get me all the way up the hill between Coors Boulevard and home. I also realized that you don’t really need spring in Albuquerque. Winter here is not an endurance test. The sky stays clear blue, cranes fly in to fill the fields, and snow doesn’t stay long enough to slush into puddles. Even the lessening light feels more like a respite than a reason for despair.
That wasn’t true growing up in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this fact recently when my sister came to visit. (Note to regular readers: you can relax; Judy and I are both happy to report that there’s no surprise ending here!) On a rare, overcast New Mexico day, Judy looked at the sky and said something like, “Oh, good, the sun’s out.”
I had forgotten that for the first twenty years of my life, a day where the sky stays a light milky gray could have felt sunny. In Pittsburgh, once winter comes and the days go short, the sky steels itself, untinted by any hint of blue. Ash Wednesday there was redundant. By February, anyone who didn’t know that they were dust and that to dust they would return just wasn’t paying attention.
On one of those short days, long before we were using words like dementia, I was standing with my mother in the kitchen of the house she’d lived in since 1967. We were looking out the window at the woods beyond the back yard. The trees with their empty branches scrawled on dull sky looked like charcoal sketches on a dingy tea towel.
“They’re all dead now,” she surprised me by saying. “They aren’t going to bloom this year.”
My mother doesn’t easily change her mind, so after a few minor protests I didn’t really argue on the trees’ behalf. The words felt sad, and portentous, and I was glad when a blue jay landed on the birdfeeder and brought some color back into the afternoon.
It’s easy to feel like the trees will never bloom again in March in Pittsburgh.
I remember those childhood winters as a series of annual illnesses. All the color fell from the trees, long nights usurped the light, and cold mornings woke you in silence. My friends and I stopped collecting bright leaves and ironing them into wax paper placemats, stopped playing kickball and flashlight tag, and started moving quickly from house to car to school bus, bundled tightly against the earth’s cold breathing. Every single year, the whole world grew quiet and died.
Sometime in late March or April, just when you were sure it was going to be winter forever this time, you’d come home from school, drop your book bag in the hall, and see a vase on the kitchen table full of pussy willow branches your mother had cut in the backyard. They were as gray as the sky, but a light-fuzzy-dawn-gray that hinted at life. The next morning waking up, you’d hear finches singing in the locust outside your bedroom window. You’d still scuff through slush on your way to the bus stop, but you could feel it coming now.
And here’s the thing. Every single year, no matter how long or bleak the winter had been, it came. The dogwood bloomed, forsythia lit up the driveway, azaleas flanked the front porch, and walnuts ripened in bright green hulls. Even the tadpoles could be counted on to swim around in creeks and jelly jars, as long as there was someone in the neighborhood young enough to remember to catch them.
In his sumptuous poem, “A Color of the Sky,” Tony Hoagland writes, “Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,” which is precisely how I felt when I got off my bike at last yesterday afternoon. “Windy today” in Albuquerque means fifty mile an hour gusts and dust suspended like fish food in the air. It means trees so flustered they throw pollen at you, and air so brown you can’t see the mountains at the edge of town. In Albuquerque, the earth in spring tells a different story than the one I learned as a child, and even living here almost twenty-five years, I’m still not sure what to make of it.
As I write tonight, I’m in out of the wind. My throat is raw, my eyes are itching, and I’m still feeling “less than brilliant.” I really don’t know much about the world, but growing up in Pittsburgh taught me this one important thing: Spring comes.
Every single year, the earth makes a promise and keeps it.
My mother was wrong about the trees that year. I’m here like Thomas to tell you: I slid my hand into the wound in the earth’s side, and I saw the woods go green.
(Click here to read “A Color of the World” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171303)