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It stays blue just a little bit later now; there’s just the tiniest bit more afternoon. It’s too early to notice it, but if you really force yourself to focus on how light changes, you can see that there is just that much more breath in the day. We have made it a little farther, past the center of the forest, a few steps closer to the edges where the light is waiting. Seasons are like love in that they allow us to feel we have achieved something without our actually having done anything. Everything is coming around again, each extra minute of light an unearned personal triumph.
At church on Sunday, it’s beginning to be the time of year when we talk about death. Lazarus emerges from behind the rolled away stone. We all want a promise that something else is coming, that the cold will be alleviated, that the world will be reborn, that we are still in line for second chances. I say “church” off-handedly, but the word makes me feel like walking a high wire in a strong wind. Thomas and I have been going to church most Sundays, a phrase that is hard to get inside a sentence where it means the thing it means. For me, it has little to do with religion. It is mostly just one more way of getting back again to the same old stories I always talk about, reaching for one more thread to my parents’ New York, the self-praising and half-fictional myths of a different city that have largely animated my life.
Which is to say: Judson is Lee and Essie’s church, where they have been members for more than forty years, and they invited us there so went one Sunday in October, and then we kept going back. Lee and Essie were my dad’s neighbors a very long time ago, and then eventually his close friends, in his twenties and early thirties. They lived in the same building in an era when you met your neighbors the way we meet people on the internet now; they had an argument about how to drill holes for a new door in a doorframe and then they were best friends. They saw my dad through a divorce and girlfriends and eventual remarriage, a child, and a move out of the city. They threw parties where people climbed the fire escapes to get inside; in the summer they walked down through the neighborhood together, crossed Lafayette east to small streets, looking for somewhere from which to buy cheap cases of wine. They argued and comforted each other and grew up together. And then they grew apart; my parents left, they stayed. Their lives diverged. Their friendship became something burnished and preserved. They began to tell stories about each other, to engrave their exploits into myth, which is one way of admitting that something is over.
I talk about this too much. Personal narrative writing, like friendship, is an all-too-effective means by which to learn how one repeats oneself. I tell the same few same stories too often. But then again, so do my parents, and so do their old friends. It’s too easy, and too cheap, to say that this is about their age, because I do this too, and so do my friends, and so does almost everyone else I know. People’s repeated stories signpost where they’ve been and how they want to be known, the location pinpointed at the intersection of who they are and who they hoped to be.
At Judson, on Sundays, I feel like a tourist, like I have arrived under false pretenses. The room where church happens, up a huge, wide-shouldered, wooden flight of stairs, is welcoming in the manner of small church basements, community theaters, fervent-hearted after-school clubs, recovery meetings. There are colorful paper flyers on the walls, chairs that stack along the edges of the room in place of pews, and watery coffee in paper cups after the service, bordering a potluck of baked goods. High above us, the latticed wood ceiling is painted a blue-lavender color that has begun to peel off in large and obvious chunks, revealing the previous generation of paint below. The center of the room is polished like a high school gymnasium’s floor. Judson is perhaps better known for its history as a dance theater than as a church, and the floor seems better suited to performance than worship; the chairs squeak and stick awkwardly, pushed back as we stand up and sit down again for the singing parts and the listening parts.
The whole room feels frayed at the edges, gently dilapidated; it does not photograph well for instagram. It is the kind of place that reminds me how much of life is about warm rooms, how much of everything is really just the difference between whether or not one is able to be inside a warm room when it is cold outside. Like marriage, religion is one of those things where when people cannot find the words to get to the more dangerous center of it, they talk about community instead. Community is at once the easiest and hardest thing in a place like this; immediately available, and impossible to crack one’s way into, since the real thing is bricked together by time and accumulation. I am new; I have no real right to be here, so I talk about community. But I am describing something on whose edges I hover, an admiring visitor taking pictures of the famous sights in a town where I do not live, lined up behind everybody else with my phone and my greedy heart and ungrateful fingers. I am only borrowing this community. For me, it is one more way into my parents’ stories, not unlike like the city in which I have spent the last sixteen years.
My own closest experiences of community are about a kind of exalted urban friendship, a version of what Lee and Essie and my Dad had back in the old days. There was a time when I thought the community I had was the beginning and ending of the world--and it was, in terms of how my days proceeded, how I got from one end of the morning to the other and back again, and went on getting older, and making it through things, how I changed, and how we all changed.
All it was really was a handful of maybe ten, maybe fifteen lightly-connected people, twice that many if you counted a supporting cast, all whom happened for a time to live near each other in Brooklyn, happened to be young and liminal and dissatisfied in similar ways. We all liked each other a little less than we said we did, most of the time, and we all had learned strategies in which the other people had become the same thing as having a place to go. We made shape and maps out of the flat lines of the neighborhood, its repetitive bars and grocery stores, and we made breezes and holidays out of a sticky, static, unabbreviated time in which nothing moved and nothing gave quarter. We were homogenous and ignorant, impressed with each other and doing very little with ourselves. When I say community, I mean that we were a habit, and that we were culpable in ways we did not and could not understand, turning inward toward each other, making each other unconscionably comfortable. But I also mean that we were how I got to the rest of my life, and that what I had in that bare collection of years was far better than I deserved. It shared something essential with this warm room and its rows of stackable chairs, a welcoming, broken-in place to which one could always return.
This, too, is a story I have told too many times. I had for a few years a life defined by an obsessive latticework of interconnected friendships all a few blocks from each other in one Brooklyn neighborhood like a sitcom or a bad novel, and then what naturally happens to most things like this happened, and our lives pulled us apart. We dispersed. We continued loving each other, but we were no longer defined by one another. We were no longer free to drink in the middle of the day, to wander the streets of the neighborhood telling stories about each other in the future tense. We skidded right over the present into the past.
Most of my desperately close friendships have shut down into our thirties, into whatever the new things are we are doing now, into our better, softer, more solved, less haphazard lives. It is, of course, not guaranteed that getting older means getting better, or means solving anything. Rather, this is the story people often tell themselves to comfort themselves about what they have left behind. I understand that I am at the age where friendship changes; I understand, too, that I have written enough about it, about this change, about friendship itself, that I should probably stop writing about it. I understand that it is not fashionable to write about friendship anymore. I understand that it is natural for lives to transform and priorities to shift, and that change happens even if we stand still inside of it. I understand that this is what happens in all my parents’ stories about Lee and Essie and the old days, and why these things have become stories, telling rather than doing. “Then you moved to California and we thought we’d never see you again,” says Lee, and we’re all quiet for a minute, not sure what to say next. “But here I am,” I say awkwardly, as though I had just arrived to the city just now, as though time had taken in a seam, pulled together extra material and sewn it up, bridging the gap between present and past.
At Judson, on a Sunday morning when the room keeps off the cold like a cup of weak coffee between two hands, we talk again and again about death and rebirth, about what miraculously returns, about the things that, against all odds, are not permanently lost. This is the essential promise of many religions - that death is not the end, that what is lost is not gone, that resurrection is possible. That we can tell the same stories, over and over again, returning to the same ground, breathing life back into what we have left behind. That forward motion is not a series of funerals, not merely a long accumulation of mourning.
I understand my dad and his friends’ myth-making now because I have begun to do it myself, with my own old friends, retelling ourselves to one another. It becomes less and less simple to be known, which is more and more the point of long friendship. The crucial documents are older, less immediate, not widely read, going out of print. The people who were there for them, who watched the history happen, begin to matter as much for their witnessing as for themselves. It becomes a way of keeping one another alive. It becomes a way to live forever.
Religious beliefs in resurrection have at times seemed to me pathetic, or more simply sad in a very small and human way. Of course everyone wants a way to make the worst truths not true. Of course no one wants to admit that everything dies. But to pull this idea into a secular frame, it is no more and no less miraculous, no more and no less real, than the fact that the light returns earlier to the sky once again, one more year, in spite of yet another winter. I tell myself that my parents are still young, that Thomas is still young, that my friends and I still are, too. In some ways this, also, is a pathetic and desperate belief, refusing the truth as it barrels down at us. But it is also the only form of hope available - to tell the stories about each other, to each other, again and again, willing them back to life. I arrive back not only at my dad’s old stories, but at his old friends, here in this room, real and alive in the present tense, standing next to me on a Sunday at the end of winter, laughing at jokes we have already told each other.
We cannot get back the previous parts of our lives, of ourselves, but we can resurrect them in retelling, keeping one another permanent, refusing to let the changes in our lives write out the people who came before. We can make structures out of repetition, out of saying the same things over and over, repeating ourselves until everyone knows the words to the songs, refusing to let only the immediate moment be real. We can take hold of what matters and hang on, until we drag it back alive out of the tomb, into the ongoing of our lives.