The Cruelest Month?

One of the things over which my wife Jane and I first bonded when we met some 25 years ago was English poetry, especially the verse of T. S. Eliot, preeminent modernist.  Eliot was painfully aware of the emotional ambiguities of the coming of new life, and he expresses this attitude at the beginning of his best-known poem, The Waste Land.  Always aware of the place of his individual talent in the English literary tradition, however, he communicates his attitudes by playing off the best-known (and arguably best) work of earlier English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  While Chaucer celebrates the liveliness of the season, the natural resurrection of sex, joy, and passion in all living things, and of spiritual longings in people, Eliot talks about the mixture of longing for a lost past and an unpromising future with boredom and sterility in the present.

Here is Chaucer:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the younge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles make melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

And here is Eliot:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

To the medieval poet the natural instinct for people is to “go on pilgrimage,” to get out after a house-bound winter, to have a drink at the Tabard Inn, to ride to Canterbury on horseback with a newly-met tour group, to renew their human soul by paying obeisance to a saint at the country’s holiest site.  In the course of their trip, they rediscover and recalibrate who they are.

To the modernist, April is a pain, deeply and disturbingly.  Human consciousness would rather stay asleep, anesthetized (Eliot’s term in an earlier poem).  Better to sleep in late than wake up with renewed life and face the realities that made sleep so desirable in the first place.  Sexual and spiritual urges alike are depressing because they remind those who feel them of past impotence of body and soul.

As a postmodern cyclist, I often find myself worried about whether I should be “just too busy” to take a ride, as I am feeling today when it’s gorgeously sunny and  65˚.  Perhaps I should be more worried about being too busy to take those inward pilgrimages.  Except that I often have time in the peace of an empty bike trail for some meditative moments.  Bottom line, what moves me most is the anti-Nancy-Reagan Nike motto:  “Just do it!”  And I will . . . tomorrow.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.


Unfocused / In Focus

I made the interesting discovery recently that I usually don’t focus my eyes when I am riding my bike.  And I concluded, oddly enough, that this is a good thing.

Several years back, I got a great pair of sunglasses, Rudy Project Rydons.  They have a clip-on insert with clear prescription lenses, and the sunglass lenses are carbon black.  As time went by I got another set of Rydon frames and a variety of interchangeable sunglass lenses with different colors, mirroring, and degrees of light-blocking power.  The yellow ones make things look brighter on cloudy days, while the black and mirrored blue ones block over 80% of the light.

The clip-ons, of course, were not bifocal, and they gave me a mild degree of problem when I wanted to look at things close-up, anything from my bike computer while riding to the valve while pumping up my tire.  The image was blurred; my eyes could not adjust completely using the single lens.

Rudy Project Rydons in blue

Rudy Project Rydons in blue

After three or four years the clip-ons developed another distracting trait: tiny uniform circles that looked like water spots began to develop near the outside edges of each lens.  Apparently the coating was bubbling.  The bubbles did not intrude on the part of the lens my eyes needed most often—the very top center—but they were distracting, especially when added to the blurring caused by beads of sweat in the summer and tears brought on by cold air in the winter.  I began to worry that my peripheral vision, already compromised by the necessarily small size of the optical lenses, would betray me some day.  And so last fall I stopped wearing the Rydons, and went back to the third most recent pair of regular glasses I had.  These were so old that they had that “aviator glasses” look of huge goggles.  Then I went to my next-to-last pair, much smaller but very uncool civilian-style lenses.

But with my annual eye exam in February came a grand inspiration.  I decided to get new lenses for the clip-ons as my second pair of glasses.  The folks at the Vienna MyEyeDr. were fabulous.  They knew just what I wanted, and a technician personally shepherded the lenses through the lab where they are ground and mounted, because she knew how important it was for them to be done just right to fit and function well.  The clips are beyond my most optimistic expectations.  Distance viewing is crisp and sharp, and close-up viewing is vastly improved.  I can even read the bike computer’s small digits on the go.

But in scanning the newly-sharp horizon I realized that it took a second or two, maybe only the length of a blink, for that horizon to snap into focus.  Then I noticed that much of the time I am riding I never focus on any specific thing for very long.  I really can’t, because I have to keep the whole vista visible in “scan” mode, my eyes picking out noteworthy details that need zeroing in on, like an upcoming stop sign, a slow walker, an unattended tyke on a tricycle veering toward the center line.  If the eyes don’t see anything they just maintain a neutral focus.  And so when I look at the far horizon, just to take in the newly leafing trees, it takes a fraction of a second for my eyes to zoom to that distance.

Yet all the while my Rydons with the new prescription clips keep me visually focused and firmly in the “cool dude” category.  Image, after all, is what counts.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Magic Week

Our chilly March weather and the sudden explosion of warmth a week ago, when the temperature hit 91˚ at National Airport, have created a compression of spring flowers.  Daffodils came out early and lingered in the cool air for weeks.  Cherry blossoms were delayed, then burst out all at once about April 7th and 8th, then got swept away within a week by winds and rain, so that they were all gone by the Cherry Blossom Parade on the 13th.  While the Cherries were still out the Dogwood and Redbud started.  The Redbud is now fully out, the Dogwood (which takes a while) is making good progress, and our Camellia bush is adorned with the first few of what promise to be a plethora of gorgeous flowers.  One of the Azaleas by the front porch is even beginning to get into the act already.  So while the early blooms got pushed back, the later ones were encouraged to come early: convergence!

It’s also Magic Week.  That’s what I call the gorgeous ten days or so when the deciduous trees leaf out.  They come so close after one another that right now they are all in some stage of leafing.  And for this magic tenuous ethereal span of days they are all different colors of green, rust, and brown.  All too soon they will be undistinguishable, a uniform shade of “full summer green.”  But right now their delicate, graceful hues form a subtly variegated landscape.  The skyline depicted below is visible from my yard.  Two weeks hence it will be barely recognizable.  The mutations of the spring season are as rare and evanescent as moments of human childhood: eternal in their value; fleeting in their existence.


Treescape in shades of spring

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Loveliest of Trees

Long ago, about the same time that the American government was considering creating a drainage pond to deal with the swampy land south of the White House, the British poet A. E. Housman (subject of Tom Stoppard’s fine play The Invention of Love), penned the following famous lines:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Housman, a fine lyric poet and a finer scholar, touches here on the odd juxtaposition of spring and death, a consciousness that evokes intimations of mortality from the very beauty of new life.

DC Cherry Tree, 2013

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Perhaps it is that consciousness, in part, that draws us to that nineteenth century drainage pond, now the Tidal Basin in Washington D. C., to see the cherry hung with snow.  Snow with a decidedly pink tinge, since the varieties of cherry which grow here have pink blossoms.  They come from Japan, many of them a gift from the Japanese government in the 1920s.  They promise new life, beauty, friendship.  Not far away on the National Mall stands, among other monuments, the World War II Memorial, to which the Japanese government also contributed in the 1940s.  Intimations of mortality and the beauty of precious life.

Housman’s math is sobering for somebody like me.  On the basis of the biblical “three score and ten” (though why we’re using mortality tables three millennia old I can’t say) I am already living on borrowed time.  Perhaps I’m borrowing it partly from my brother and father, who undershot their allocation by a total of twelve years.  But then, my mother overspent hers by twenty-one.  The sanest thing to say is that I can only hope I have enough of her strong Dutch genes to get me through a score or so more years of watching things in bloom.

To do that watching in this town, though, takes some effort.  We were at the Tidal Basin

And the leaf buds'  green flare / Cherry blossoms so fair / Gave proof until night  / That the Spring is so rare

And the leaf buds’ green flare / Cherry blossoms so fair / Gave proof until night / That the Spring is so rare

exactly one week ago, at a time when the blossoms were at full peak.  The temperature hit 87˚ at National Airport that day.  It was our first toasty day of summer.  Two days before, the high temperature was in the 50s.  In usual D.C. fashion the pendulum swung sharply, and one can assert only semi-facetiously that Spring 2013 occurred in Washington on Monday, April 8, between the hours of 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.   We were at the Tidal Basin at about 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon.  So were hoards of other people.  The paths were so crowded you could hardly walk five steps without having to duck out of somebody’s way or circumvent an avid photographer and/or his or her subject, standing with a smile in front of boughs cascading with pale pink blossoms.  Not the experience of the solitary sensitive soul strolling along the woodland ride.  I learned from a friend that he had cycled down the same morning to arrive at 6:15 a.m., and it had been just as crowded.  He said you couldn’t get a photo of the Jefferson Memorial without somebody extraneous in the foreground.  At that hour I’m not awake enough to tell a derailleur from a bottom bracket.  “The light is so great at that hour,” he said.  “Yeah, well give my regards to Ansel Adams,” I thought.

But it was fun being there.  My daughter and her daughter were in town, and we all rode the Metro, walked through museums, took pictures of each other, strolled all over the National Mall and a bit along the Tidal Basin, and ate Rocket Popsicles, soaking in an epic D.C. experience.  I even got photos of the cherry trees without other people in them, including one (see above) that reminded me of the Fourth of July.  For this day, at least, even a casual photographer could get a spectacular image.  Nature was too gorgeous to allow failure.  And if she will allot me even more time, since even threescore springs and thirteen are little room to know such beauty, I and my loved ones will make our pilgrimage many times again.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.