The present, if the most important tense, is often also the least interesting

I wish it were still January,  © 2014 Celia Her City
The present is the most important tense: a proposition that fills me with a sort of dread.

Yes, the look of the river and the feel of the cold is important as I advance mechanically through my commute each day.  The present is where we feel pleasure and pain, where we endure monotony, where we encounter ugliness so overwhelming that our minds fly off as soon as they can. More

New Year’s Night

On New Year's Night It Snowed, © 2014 Celia Her CityOn New Year’s night, it snowed.  We looked out to see the snow covering the evidence of other seasons: the stray oak leaves clinging to the juniper, the new growth on the mock orange and yew.

We decided to go out for a late-night constitutional.  We ended up walking farther than we intended to.

We looked back at the house, © 2014 Celia Her CityFrom the street, we looked up at the house, at the steps we had shoveled that morning, at the place where, until a few moments ago, we had been sitting lazily by a cheering fire.

We gazed at the house with satisfaction and pride.  In our mind’s eye, we could see the house over the decades, when it was a scrawnier thing without plantings, lightless, without terraces.  We could recall hours, days, and weeks there spent profitably or wildly; many others that sped or dragged past without our doing anything.

We could recall the house’s previous inhabitants, a father dead, a mother still living, wild children who once ran naked on the beach or played with firecrackers, who played tricks on one another, who are now well grown, some with children and even grandchildren of their own.  How the house had evolved in the middle of it all, how it had changed and become more beautiful, even during our brief tenure!

And now, with the snow, it was changing still!

We marveled, © 2014 Celia Her CityWe marveled at the unfamiliarity of familiar things, which the snow, falling thickly, was transforming.  We gazed at the old evergreens appreciatively, their boughs weighed with newness, however evanescent: it was all so beautiful, the light, the heavy shapes, the feathery azaleas in between.  We felt the old excitement of being out in the snow.  Being out in the snow at night was more magical still.

The night was charged with energy, © 2014 Celia Her CityFor the night was charged with energy.  Every house around the neighborhood was charged with it, the ground, trees, and dwellings all united with the same current.  All the sudden, our eyes had adjusted to the night, and we were dazzled with the perfect beauty of our surroundings.

Glowing with freshness and purity, © 2014 Celia Her City
What is New Year’s about after all?  For a moment all nature seemed charged with new possibility, with mystery.  Our walk around the block suddenly crackled and shone with drama, with a strangeness so wonderful it was almost unnerving.

Our familiar path looked strange, © 2014 Celia Her City
New Year’s is more than the hands of a clock or a midnight kiss.  It is wilder than the wildest party, this thing we call the future, that we rush to meet, that unfolds within the bounds of a world that we tell ourselves we know already.  Happy New Year, we say; but what will it be?

New year's night, © 2014 Celia Her City
Some such were my thoughts, as I tramped up the street, and my camera developed them into the picture you see, with a strange light in the north where no light should be.

Remembering Charlotte

AICtreeThis is the year that Charlotte died.  Strange that in the end I should find her death so significant, so haunting, because, in fact, I hardly knew her.  Yes, over the years I had spoken with her on the phone a number of times and read the cards she sent to the house, but I had never met her in the flesh.  Charlotte was for me never more than a voice, a spirit, a hand-writing, vestiges embedded in memory, in the history of our home.

Charlotte was important to my husband, and hence to me, a crucial link in what can aptly be called a tale of two cities.  She was a de facto ambassador, an exceptional figure persistently shuttling back and forth to us, calling to us, and testifying to us, across a racial divide.

Her long personal connection with my husband, maintained variously through a complex blend of friendship and spiritual and financial generosity, stretched back several decades, connecting our white, affluent, north-side household to the realities of African-American life on Chicago’s tougher south side.

A matriarch as well as an experienced housekeeper and nanny, Charlotte came to work in Bob’s household when his only child (now twenty-something) was a small boy.  Charlotte was, in that long period, a powerful daily presence, providing practical care, encouragement, and spiritual inspiration to a family that, while materially fortunate, was ultimately riven by its own complex difficulties.  Regardless of the day’s proclivities, or those of history, Charlotte was invariably a full embodiment of Christian belief, frankly and enthusiastically spreading the gospel of God’s love.

She was long retired and gone from the scene by the time my husband and I met and married.  But Bob’s appreciation of Charlotte, now elderly, and the needs of her family, was enduring.  He sent her a fixed sum monthly to ease her retirement, a ritual occasioning their monthly exchange of notes and calls.  Charlotte always sent cards with a religious theme, her copious thanks scribbled in notes full of enthusiasm and affirmation, seasoned with scraps of apt Biblical quotation.

Besides several adult children, some of whom lived with her, Charlotte’s family included a woman a decade younger than herself named Muriel, a once-homeless friend whom Charlotte had adopted.  Bob sent food to Charlotte’s family every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Almost always it reached them, though the massive package of food was once stolen from their porch.

When Charlotte was ill, her daughter Felicia, an ordained minister who led a small church, would call with the news.  One day Felicia called to say her mother had fallen and broken her hip.  It proved to be an injury that would not heal.  Charlotte, suffering from some sort of infection, spent many months in a rehab facility; after that, she never returned home for very long.

The last time I spoke with her, she sounded composed, still fervently faithful but frail, filled with a hope that, no matter what came, God’s joy would come, too.  In the end, her heart gave out, a death sudden-seeming to those of us accustomed to thinking of her as only ill, perhaps even recovering.

Her affectionate soul, transcending the differences of a benighted urban society, is gone, leaving us only with abstractions, and the recollection of an unmatched example of confidence and faith.

Fourth Presbyterian

Fourth Presbyterian Church (before Christmas), © 2013 Celia Her CityAnd now for the sprint toward Christmas!

These days, like this rendering of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, are a bit of a blur.  There are crowds, there is slush, there are lists, there are trips to the post office, there are a few extra drinks.  We will forage our storage for cherished decorations; we will go to Gethsemane for the tree.  We will try valiantly to get our cards out in time.

Whatever we do, the Fourth Presbyterian Church has seen it all, sitting on the corner of Michigan and Delaware for well over a hundred years.  It has watched the crowds grow bigger, the buildings get higher, the Avenue change.  It has watched fashion trend and couples fight.  It has watched tourists pass from all over; families with excited children; homeless people begging.  It has seen decades of brides and grooms, old people gingerly climbing its steps, many funerals, too.

Meanwhile, we see it change, reflecting the day’s light, the blue hours, the sunrises, the lights of man that illuminate the city.  We see its ivy change with the season, growing more sinewy with winter, creeping every year closer to the roof, slowly greening and gladdening with all earth in spring.

We stand at the bus, clutching our bags, waiting; we look at the church, and it looks at us.

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