6. IN CIRCULAR TIME
In the fall of my senior year I slipped into another frame of mind. My days at school and at home were passing now like beads strung on a loop of time spiraling outward.
On some days I was back where I'd been many times before—helping Mom in the kitchen or wash the windows, or helping Dad to take care of the lawn. Doing the same things year after year I went through the same motions sifting through the same thoughts over and over again. Small changes like a crack in a window pane or an acorn rooting in the lawn caused much excitement. On other days I'd get ahead of myself, thoughts leaning into the future dangling entertaining images of what awaited me after graduation.
Routine was where the inner and outer worlds ran into each other. Though unexpected events often upset the daily rhythms, activities at home and in school readily adjusted. When the two worlds parted or collided, as happened from time to time, it was no big deal—necessary changes and adjustments were made.
In circular time the past and the future were like grains of sand in an hourglass—hours passing through the narrows of the present slipped into the future hardly noticed. When the sands ran out and the glass turned over, the future carried over into the past, hypnotic repetitions keeping both the world and me on an even keel.
At home the routine seldom varied. Yet even at breakfast neither Mom nor Dad were ever quite the same. Some mornings they exchanged furtive glances and talked hurriedly; at other times faint smiles washed over their faces as if they shared a secret; an exchange of lingering glances signaled an unwillingness to part. From day to day I too was not the same. Never indifferent to the day ahead, on some days I was eager to go to school while on others I wished to stay home.
True, there were days when I felt like a squirrel in a cage, running round and round and getting nowhere. The squirrel's cage however was the best place from which to observe people and listen to what they said and to watch what they did. When people talked about their lives, their families or the news, they hardly took notice of me busy in my place. Envisioning myself in their place, I "graduated" from high school with my cousin, "entered" the world with the girl next door who took a job, learned how it feels to get married, to have a good or a bad husband, be pregnant, give birth and experience death. I heard a lot about people succeeding and failing in life, and realized that a paper attesting to formal education was helpful in getting a job, but some other mysterious ingredient was more desirable. No one seemed to know what it was or had no words to pin it down.
In circular time humanity was throbbing with changes that none seemed to escape. As if every child man and woman were allotted a certain range of experiences, as if sooner or later all faced similar predicaments but lived through them on different levels—some merely skimming the surface, others wading into treacherous depths. Nothing human seemed foreign to me. Change was the keeper of patterns I was learning to read. Time merely marked the durations of the manifold phases of our lives. That's why the inner clock was there.
A significant change took place between me and my parents: they stopped treating me like a child. Instead of reminding me what was expected, they now discussed with me what needed to be done. There was much to talk about at dinnertime. Home was an oasis removed from the turbulent world outside the front door.
I was already in bed, neither awake nor dreaming, when a gray barn owl glided onto the windowsill.
"Had a good day?" she asked softly.
"Ready for tomorrow?"
"Yes..." And asked, "And you?"
"I slept most of the day. As usual."
"Is there much difference between sleeping during the day or at night?"
"Not really. The world moves on regardless whether it is night or day and clocks never stop ticking." She fluffed her feathers.
Dozing off I said, "Good night."
But the owl would not stop talking.
"Every creature spends its life in a loop of time assigned to its kind. So do stones and plants and planets in their orbits. In circles small and immense, every single thing in existence is constantly becoming something else—either more or less of itself or part of some other thing. Nothing is ever gained in this world. Or lost. Or wasted. Not even your life or my life, regardless of how insignificant they may seem. Change-in-time keeps the world in flux."
After these words the owl hopped onto my bed stooped and winked. Taking the hint I climbed onto her back and cuddled up in the soft neck feathers. She spread wings and leaning into the night rose above the sleeping world. Lulled by the flap of wings I fell asleep and woke up when a glimmer of light touched my cheek.
The owl landed on a cloud under the rafters that hold up the firmament. Supported by sturdy light beams the rafters cast an intricate pattern of shadows. Familiar voices swirled in the air—my ancestors resided here. I found them seated in a circle, on chairs half sunk in a cloud, spinning yarns.
A middle-aged woman with a bonnet was telling a story.
"... Soon after Cousin Ursula left the house, the darkness of night fell upon her. Relying on the mare to find the way she entered the forest she had to cross."
"A very challenging task," interrupted an aging man in old fashioned attire, "The knight in whose garden black roses bloom was a disagreeable fellow and a black rose was not found anywhere else on earth."
A gray-haired lady with a lace scarf on her shoulders continued, "Ursula was near the end of the forest when a screeching fury leaped in front of the mare, and as the mare backed up our cousin fell to the ground. Cackling, the fury jumped onto her chest." The yarn she spun turned yellow.
A young man continued the story, "You are not fit to see or touch the black rose," shouted the fury poking her fingers into our cousin's eyes." But then the good fairy appeared and the two were wrestling still when the crow of a rooster raised the sun and so dear Ursula was saved." The thread between his fingers changed from crimson to purple.
A teenager with blood on his shirt took over. "Ursula knocked on the door of the knight's castle in time for breakfast, and no one knows how the conversation went at the table. After breakfast our cousin, the sixth granddaughter of Genghis Kahn followed the handsome knight into the garden." As his yarn turned orange, the pretty ancestor sitting next to him took over.
" At the far corner of the far wall he stopped but the black rose was not there. Cousin Ursula looked at the knight and he said, the rose was deep inside the corner shadow, she had to reach for it." The yarn in his fingers turned dark and a bearded man continued the story.
"Bravely Ursula put her hand into the bottomless darkness, and feeling a thorn prick her finger, clasped her hand around it and pulled. The rose in her hand was blacker than midnight, the leaf and the stem like blackened silver, the thorn in her finger blood red." By then the yarn between his fingers spun crimson with a silvery sheen.
"Seeing the rose had a taste for blood, our cousin clenched her fist around it and without loosening her grip she held the rose in her hand all the way home," said a man wearing a philosopher's cap. "All ended well," he continued. "Cousin Ursula had obtained the curative flower and brought the rose home in time. And as her father held it in his bony hand, the hand turned pink the rose turned pale and the lord of the house recovered."
The telling of stories did not stop there for another ancestor said, "Remember the spring when..." And many other family stories were told many times over, each time around with a slightly different emotional tint, the changing pitch of voices spinning a great variety of colored yarn. When the story was about an ancestor dying in foreign lands of wounds, or the plight of a child orphaned early in life, misfortune slowed the fingers and the balls of yarn swayed sadly from side to side, colors turning darker and deeper until a cheerful episode brightened them all. When a story was joyous, like the one about the third son of Amragan the Turk, the progenitor of the family who scared away the robbers by scratching the wall behind which he was hiding, or the quick-witted uncle who with a group of friends tricked an army of invaders into marshes where horses and men vanished overnight—faces flushed, spools bobbed as if giggling and colors took on a brighter shade.
Asked to contribute to the ancestral memory I was seated in the circle of spinners in a chair between Mother and Grandmother. When I was telling the story of my life, Mother and Grandmother were holding my hands, their warm attention raising my voice to song. In a note pitched high I asked,
"Earth, do you hear me?"
A breeze combed my hair.