One of my favorite lines in literature is from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:
“These too are of a burning color – not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.”
I just think it’s a gorgeous sentence, not only capturing the truth of the ethereal, dancing California poppies, but also reflecting what I love about Steinbeck’s writing: the simplicity, which over time builds the complexity. It is something I aim to emulate; it is harder than he makes it look.
Recently I picked up another book, Journal of a Novel, which is actually a collection of letters Steinbeck penned each day as a warm-up exercise to writing East of Eden. As with the line above, an early section – this time the very first words of the book – stood out immediately to me:
“How did the time pass and how did it grow so late. Have we learned anything from the passage of time? Are we more mature, wiser, more perceptive, kinder? We have known each other now for centuries and still I remember the first time and the last time.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last several days.
My brother arrived last Sunday for a visit, to spend time with me and to meet and get to know my little one. It had been 2 ½ years since I’d seen him, by far the longest we’d ever gone in our lives. I am lucky – so very lucky – to adore my siblings, and being far away from them is difficult.
As weeks do when you’re really looking forward to them, his time here flew by. We made the most of it, seeking out redwoods and the ocean and taking long walks and eating good food. We sat on my porch in the fading light of day and talked; we sat at my kitchen table long after the sun had gone down and traded stories. My child immediately, and fully, fell for him, asking about him as soon as he awoke and trailing him throughout the day. I am pretty sure my brother fell just as hard.
My brother and I are both in our 40s. I remember when he was young: checking out books from the library that promised to teach him how to draw; running around in the backyard looking for eggs on Easter; playing in the backyard or in his room with friends. In the memories of his childhood, I find my own, and I think about how tied we are to the people we love. My stories – for the first 17 years of my life and then so often since then – run alongside his, though they’re vastly different, though our paths took us to opposite sides of the continent. I can’t tell the tale of my life without also including him, without also including our sister.
With my brother’s departure arrives the impending end of summer, and I am longing already for the days to stand still. My summer was perhaps nothing special if you measure such things by stamps in a passport, as I used to, but it was one of the best summers of my life. My child is at an age that can only be described as magical; he is constantly learning, playing, running, growing, laughing. He’s figuring out more about who he is and how he fits into this world, and being along for that ride is the single greatest privilege in my life. I have adored the rhythm of our days together this season, the way that we could loop into one another, the discovery that I could decide on the adventures for the day and that he would happily go along with me, whether they took us to the beach or the garden or the water table or the laundry.
It occurred to me finally the other day that the bittersweet feeling that has run through all of these days is the knowledge that time is passing passing passing, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to stop it or slow it down. As a parent, I must let go of that hope and instead dive into the moment I’m in, knowing that it won’t come again, knowing that despite the thousands of pictures and videos on my phone, I can’t recreate the feeling that comes along with it. It is mine to hold and then it is gone. I’m someone known to others as deeply sentimental; it’s been a close hope of mine all along that I could capture the good moments of my life and remember them for all time. But that’s impossible, and I don’t want to spend my life looking backwards.
So my child – thankfully – grows. Gets bigger, explores more, in time needs me less. So my brother – thankfully – arrives and leaves again. How wonderful, how heartbreaking.
The pandemic taught me so much about living well, loving fully, opening up and letting go. It brought me my son and – as it did for everyone – it brought me distance from people I love. I am certainly changed because of it, sometimes in ways I know I don’t yet understand. But I don’t ever want to go another couple of years without seeing my brother.
It’s been eight years since I moved to the coast. Eight years exactly, actually, since I moved to the land where liquid gold can raise a cream. Steinbeck lives among these hills. I get older. The days turn into years; the years, into distant memories. And still we go. How the time has passed, how it has grown so late, I am sure I will never know.