On Time and Nancy

Nancy wanted to wait to see the lilacs bloom. "That will be my sign," she said.

On Time and Nancy

I had to look at my calendar to believe what people are saying, that it is now eight weeks and three days of lockdown, though this prison term – I mean the word, lockdown – seems like the title of a Hollywood film rather than the time I've been living. The notes on my calendar tell me that I have been busy meeting people on Zoom, though my memory of those conversations is of events much longer ago than they were: weeks instead of days, months instead of weeks. I confess I have stopped trying to rein in my memory like a snorting stallion and have instead taken off the bridle and let it run. After a much-needed run to exhaustion, it has picked its way through the undergrowth down to the stream that flows out of the woods, to drink.

During these weeks, the friend who was like a sister to me all the long road of my life, stopped taking the ineffectual chemo and opted for a quiet farewell in her little home in the woods, with her man by her side. Nancy wanted to wait to see the lilacs bloom. "That will be my sign," she said.

In the first weeks she was still able with effort to respond to my emails, but then she lay down the carpenter's tools of language and we relied on the subtler channels. On the day before the lilacs bloomed, I felt her holding my hand, though the Atlantic Ocean was between us, and a few hours later she had leapt from her mountain top and spread her wings.

To keep this record honest – as she would insist upon – the lilacs didn't bloom until the next day, after a night of furious winds and rain as if the sky's heart was breaking, pouring out its tears for a beloved heroine, like the ending of La Bohème. In the morning the sun burst out and every tree and bush and flower for miles around exploded with glorious color like a chorus announcing that she had safely arrived home. And that was when, all around her cottage, the lavender and white lilac bushes showered her garden with her favorite scent, like incense in a temple.

Every year Nancy would bring a few lilac branches in a jar of water to her dance class on the day they bloomed, for her group to smell. Her classes were actually explorations of time. Like divers, she and the group plunged into the depths of their experience like observers with lights strapped to their foreheads, their two-hour oxygen tanks on their backs, swimming into the openings they found in the present moment, in stillness or motion, in contact or solo, eyes open or closed.

There are moments in life when time expands without warning or intention on our part – the kiss that lasts what feels like a lifetime, for one feels life has been fulfilled within it; the flight through air, with everyone on the street in stop-motion around you, as you sail over the handlebars of your bike and the asphalt approaches almost gingerly for a different kind of kiss, while you have time to sigh and prepare yourself for what might be your exit from this life; the moment in a concert of Indian music when you can't fight your eyelids' desire to fall and you spiral down into a dream which takes you through a twisting maze of lanes at dawn to reach the long-awaited meeting, only to be poked in the ribs by your companion whispering, "You're snoring"; the payoff on the meditation cushion when by watching your wandering mind scampering like a dog through the high weeds of the future or chasing a rabbit into the canyons of the past, you decide to let it run as it wants with no need to chase it or control it, and the present moment itself opens up into a mountain top with a 360º view – but Nancy didn't wait for them to find their way to her; she was hungry for the views, like a mountain climber who goes after the next peak and the next; and she found out that it's something you can do together – using ropes made from a few carefully chosen words – and share at the end what you saw and what you felt.

Now everyday at 4 p.m. my time in Spain – 10 a.m. in the New England town where she lived with her man in the house surrounded by lilacs, and the timeless present wherever she is now – I sit on my cushion and follow my breath and sometimes I see her – on that mountainside in Colorado she took me to once, or maybe it's in Tibet – with the sky all around us like a symbol not of space, but of time, spreading out in all directions without limit, just the way it always felt when we were here together.