When I was a child living in southwestern Kansas, there was a huge overgrown honeysuckle bush outside my bedroom window. One could get drunk on the smell of the blossoms, and I did, lying there reading good books and writing bad poetry. One whiff of the sickening sweet fragrance of honeysuckle and I am ten years old again, wiling away a warm May afternoon under its branches.

May, I have decided, is my favorite month in New Mexico. The winds can be brutal and ugly, filling the air with dirt and debris (It’s not dirt, it’s enchantment, the locals like to say.). Like an old Warner-Brothers cartoon, tumbleweeds roll down the highway and collect along the medians; tree branches break; trash is blown everywhere. But when the wind dies down and the dust settles, what is left is breathtaking. The fragrance of Spanish broom fills the air; hundreds of roses dance in the sunshine like girls in ballet class showing off their new tutus; the brilliant yellow yarrow screams for attention, like a stoplight cautioning us to slow down. Pay attention! it tells us as it waves in the morning breeze.

This year, even my honeysuckle vines are blooming abundantly, taking me back to the secret hiding place of childhood every time I walk by the garage. It is as if after this long, bleak year, the world has pulled out all the stops, showering us with a spring to remember even as our lives and patterns lurch forward in strange stumbling fits and starts.

Trollope, the new kitten, also lurches, running sideways as he chases Truffle from room to room. “Maybe we should have named him ‘Bishop’ since he moves diagonally,” Matt says one night as we watch him two-step drunkenly through the house.

Of course, we are all trying to find solid ground under our feet these days, figuring out how to move again after so many restricted months of isolation. Hugging requires a whole new level of consent. “Are you vaccinated?” we ask each other before rushing into one another’s arms. Everyday rules and restrictions fall; we find ourselves disoriented, uncomfortable, intoxicated with newfound freedoms.

Historically around here, the second half of May has been a studio break in lessons before the summer session begins in June. These open days are liberating, the antidote to a highly structured life. They can also be a bit unsettling. Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “The gaps are the thing…Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

It’s those gaps that often make us squirm. We eye an unplanned afternoon uneasily, unwilling to give ourselves a gold star for nothing. My mother always valued productivity, structuring our childhoods tightly around music lessons and homework, believing strongly in a life bursting with tangible accomplishments. Even today, every conversation begins with a familiar call-and-response. “How was your week?” Momma asks me. I know the answer. “Busy,” I tell her. This is exactly what she not only expects, but wants to hear. From her, I acquired not only practice habits, but also countless lessons in efficiency. “One reason I taught all you kids to play the piano,” Momma recently told me, “was so that you’d have something to do.  I didn’t want you to be bored.” I almost laughed at the irony.

But there is a good reason that we are wary of the gaps. Over the years, I have witnessed friends and acquaintances spontaneously start or end relationships, buy or sell houses, quit jobs or take up rock climbing just to avoid sitting with the uncomfortable nothingness of an empty afternoon. While often our distractions are much less radical and even noble and productive—we repaint the dining room, rearrange the furniture, repot our plants—there are times that we will do anything not to face the dark shadows of our minds.

“I get in trouble when I’m bored,” a friend confessed to me one day. For Jillian, boredom invites depression, a tendency to sink into despondency and self-pity. If she can just stay busy, she can dodge her inner demons. When she doesn’t manage to fill her empty time productively, she resorts to self-destructive behaviors: she drinks too much or spends money she doesn’t have, the twin evils of avoidance and pacification. Boredom can be a dangerous thing indeed.

“It’s the first day of a break I dread,” my friend Ruthie once confided to me in a rare moment of vulnerability. She is a busy college administrator; if anyone had good reason to enjoy a vacation from work-related stresses it would be her. “Why?” I asked her. She shook her head, a bit sheepish. “Without my job I don’t know who I am,” she admitted.

I understand all too well. Facing a year without performances and rehearsals, I overfilled my lesson schedule during the pandemic, taking on an unprecedented number of students. I rationalized this by saying that without gigs I had the time to teach more. And besides, I should compensate for the loss in income. Both things were true. What was also true: I feared the gap.

“The gaps are the thing,” Dillard tells us. Or as the English gardener Gertrude Jekyll asked, “Is it worth having? Is it worth doing? These questions form a useful mental sieve through which to pass many matters in order to separate the husk from the grain.” Such are the questions we find ourselves grappling with as we stagger forward—Masked? Unmasked?—with trepidation. “Spend the afternoon,” Dillard gently chides us. “You can’t take it with you.”

Meanwhile, quite unexpectedly, a gaping hole in my life fills. Next week, my best friend Lora is moving back to Albuquerque after five and a half years of living outside of Boston. Yes, this is that Lora, the creator of the infamous 15 Outfits theory, which means first and foremost that half of my wardrobe returns to New Mexico. I’ve missed the exchange: “Who has the black skirt?” “I’m coming over to get the red shawl.” And the way she used to drop by several times a week with catalogues of clothes I should “consider” (her word). We often traveled together without drama or fuss, each remembering to pack what the other has forgotten (“Hair dryer?” “Got it. Wrap dress?” “Yep.”). We share a birthday month; we were even born in the same Boston hospital and delivered by the same doctor many decades ago (There should be a plaque or, at the very least, a bench, to honor us.). In the last 20+ years of friendship, we have solved all the problems of the world at least five times over. She is the older sister I always wanted, free with her support and her advice (“Have you ever considered a hair iron?”). Once she texted me this message: “The Bissell 1940 steam mop has changed my life.  I’m bringing it over to you.”

There has been such a hole in my world without her.

Georgia O’Keefe said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.” Last week the first hollyhocks appeared along the driveway. They are a dark sexy red with blossoms the size of dinner plates. They are the color of a dress I once inherited from Lora, a dress I wore to New Year’s Eve parties and to my brother’s wedding. Outside the picture window next to the piano a hummingbird sips at the red calibrachea in the hanging baskets. The kittens are on the back of the chair, sleeping off their last round of troublemaking. In these last weeks of May, the hours gape before me, yawning luxuriously.

Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

 

 

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