If a thing loves, it is infinite. William Blake
It was like that when we returned from our trip to St. Petersburg, too. I couldn’t put it into words, the layers and layers of history dancing with the present moment, dancing in the present moment, and the emotions it conjured up. Cam and I, along with Cam’s mother, had traveled to Russia in mid-December, six and a half years ago, to visit with our son, Chris, who was participating in a semester abroad. I wanted to write about this grand adventure, to try to find a way to express how time unhinged itself, how you were pretty sure that it was Dostoevsky walking in front of you down that ice-covered street, almost certain that Catherine was alive and attending the opera, the uniquely Russian opera that carried you through the whole of Russian history. I found myself so full of Russia, of St. Petersburg and its layers and layers of stories, its past and its present, that all I could do when I returned to my life at home was share my photo collection and a vignette or two, along with some bright-colored candies and creamy chocolates and hand-painted trinkets. And now, I’m filled up again, the past permeating the present, filled up again with the layers and layers of stories, except this time the focus is close to home; it’s my family’s history, our personal opera that was brought center stage two weeks ago in Maine.
It wasn’t a matter of jumping into a time machine, dislodging from the present moment. It wasn’t like that at all. In Russia, I breathed in the dim light of the December days and the glorious opulence of the Hermitage and the click click click of impossibly high heels and I admired the piles of wild mushrooms stacked on tables in the subway stations. I was there, in the Now, experiencing it all, and the stories that sang out from the palaces and the courtyards and the storefronts of Nevsky Prospect just added soul, deep Russian soul, to the adventure. And perhaps, it is only when you are really present in the moment, consciously breathing in the air that is right in front of you, that you are able to sense it, that that same air might have been breathed by Peter the Great or the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, or, maybe, if you’re in Maine, for a weekend Memorial Service for your mother, by one of your own ancestors, a great grandmother or grandfather who came before you.
So, I there I was in Maine on the last weekend in July, very much present in my body, breathing in the salt air, savoring the on-shore breeze and the smell of bayberries and the sun beaming down on my bare shoulders. And there I was in Maine, with my siblings in my brother’s house on the family property in West Point, dividing up treasures that our mother had held dear; there I was sorting through boxes and boxes of photos with my sister, and walking past my childhood house, the sea captain’s home of my elementary years, with my grown-up sons. There I was sharing my personal Maine history with my present-day friends, Mary and Cathy, who had driven east from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for this weekend of celebration. And there I was, there we all were, congregating in the church where I was baptized and where I was married, gathered now all these years later on a humid, still, overcast Sunday afternoon.
And how do you soak it all in, this poignant personal opera? You can write about the present day details, the flowers – the bayberries, zinnias, delphinium – gathered just a few miles from the cottage that your mother lived in for fifty years, how you and your sister placed them on the altar, in front of the lectern, on the sills of the tall New England windows of the church that the two of you used to know by heart. You can share how the people flooded into your childhood church on that still, humid afternoon, people you have known a long, long time – your aunt and your uncle, and cousins, cousins from both sides of your family, the boy cousins, the girl cousins, cousins and nieces and nephews and friends from near and far, and friends of yours and friends of your mothers, and friends who were like cousins and aunts and uncles. You can say that it was wonderful, this flood of people, this flood of emotion, this flood of stories. You can say that it wasn’t just the people, the living breathing people, so many of them, all dear to you, that it was impossible to visit in a slow satisfying way, that it was the others, too, the ones no longer in their bodies, the ones that are also dear, that crowded into that weekend in Maine.
You can say all that, and you can say that the floodgates opened and the rain poured down, a true all-day soaking-into-the-ground rain. You can add that it wasn’t a dismal vodka-drenched rain, and the opera, if we’re thinking of this as an opera, wasn’t a tragedy at all, and the love on that rainy afternoon, it was palpable, and even if you can never really write about it, you have it in you, this weekend in Maine, this rainy afternoon, the stories, and the love that never really can be put into words.