Ed van der Elsken
What the Living Do
by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil
probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty
dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight
the open living room windows because the heat’s on too high in here,
and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street
the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my
wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush:
This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter
to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more
and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in
the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a
cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m
I am living, I remember you.
The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”
There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives. “