Nothing gold can stay.

Speaking of fragments and the flotsam of a mind working through loss (as I sort of was at the end of my last entry), I had fun looking up this phrase and being reminded it originally came from Robert Frost and not Ponyboy in The Outsiders.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The phrase “nothing gold can stay” popped into my mind, however, not as I was thinking of Ponyboy Curtis but of snowmen, and how they always melt. My good friend Blaine recently made me aware of a poignant (and apparently classic) children’s book that perhaps everyone in the world has heard of but me, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Although Blaine warned me that as with most tales involving snowmen this one did not end happily, I have an affinity for snowmen (especially ones that come to life and stuff) and had to check it out. So check it out I did, after briefly waiting for someone to return it to my local branch of the public library. Clutching it in my hands eagerly (the cover was so cute!) I raced back to my office where I “read” it less than ten minutes (scare quotes because one does not read The Snowman; it is a picture book and WOW are the illustrations gorgeous). I can’t believe I never heard of this book! Thematically it is similar to The Velveteen Rabbit, another of my all-time favorite stories. In a nutshell, boy builds snowman, snowman comes to life, boy has magical night of adventure with snowman, boy hugs snowman goodnight, boy wakes up in the bright dawn of a new day to find snowman melted away, only a pile of clothes where he once stood. I started crying even as they were in the middle of their heart-melting magical adventure… maybe because I knew the terrible ending coming, or maybe because the illustrations of them flying hand in hand above the night cityscape were so breathtakingly beautiful, or maybe both. Either way, I had to close my office door because I was crying kind of loudly.

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I encourage anyone not familiar with The Snowman to check it out; the tale told in pictures of the blossoming friendship between these two different creatures, boy and snowman, is so sweet, so magical. Their story unfolds quickly and is over too fast, but they packed so much beauty and wonder into that one night. I guess maybe it reminds me of something…of someone.

Blaine had warned me! I knew how this tale was going to end. I sent him a quick message to tell him I was holed up in my office with the door shut, weeping over a storybook snowman, thanks to him (but that seriously I loved the book, thanks for the recommendation! *Sniff*) and his response made me think about how nothing gold can stay, and how snowmen always melt away. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him, but I quoted Robert Frost in this post too, so Blaine is in good company, right? Right. He responded:

I hate to think I had something to do with making a dear friend cry but, at the same time, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! : ) It’s strange but I think the sad ending makes the book even more beautiful, somehow. I mean, if the snowman and the boy (or the velveteen rabbit and his boy – another book near and dear to my heart, btw!) simply lived happily ever after, the books probably wouldn’t bring out the same emotions, you know? Both books seem to tap into something very deep and human within us…and they choke me up, too, but in the best way (as far as tears go).

Hmm. I pondered this all the way home, especially because I, too, love The Velveteen Rabbit. I hate sad endings, or I think I do. But do they make the stories more beautiful? Would The Snowman be as compelling if the title character did not melt at the end? If not, why not? And why am I attracted to stories and images of snowmen? (My thrift score dishes even have smiling snowmen on them.) What does that say about me? Am I a masochist? Etc.! But I think what attracts me is the magic, not the sad ending.

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Anyway, Blaine pointing out the obvious-to-anyone-but-me fact that stories featuring snowmen don’t usually have happy endings made me think…and then think some more about this idea that the very thing I hate about them maybe makes them more beautiful. And I think he has a point. They do tap something deep within us (at least us more sensitive souls), but what? I honestly am not attracted to sad endings; I cry enough in regular life and I think there is plenty to feel melancholy about without having to seek out tragedy in my entertainment, you know? (Especially being an animal advocate and knowing the horrible things happening to animals every minute – I actually spend a lot of mental energy studiously avoiding thinking about sad things.) So what’s the deal with snowmen, and with stories about toys coming to life only to become real and leave us, a la The Velveteen Rabbit? I guess the obvious interpretation is they are sort of a metaphor for the human condition. The only constant is change, everything is impermanent, blah blah. It sounds cliche to me now, but wrapping my head around the salience of impermanence was one of the greatest challenges for me in the early stages of mourning Alec.

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Or maybe it’s that when we love deeply with our entire being, we create something new. The relationship becomes a living thing, we create a new entity, we bring something to life, like magic! But that is a bit too abstract; it’s not what attracts me. What always appealed to me (an imaginative child with lots of stuffed animals and imaginary friends) so deeply in the story of the velveteen rabbit was this utterly romantic idea that if you loved something/someone enough you could literally bring it/them to life. And an extension of this magical thinking would be if you loved someone enough you could keep them from dying, right? I didn’t realize some part of me believed this until Alec got sick, and it made losing him harder, though it’s difficult to put gradations on that experience. I blame the fairy tales! Though I guess I can’t really, because they contain both messages: love can bring someone (your snowman, stuffed bunny, etc.), to life, but they always melt in the end (or in the case of the velveteen rabbit, leave). Yet I guess somewhere deep down I really, truly believed my love could keep him alive, not literally (maybe literally), but that’s what it felt like, you know? How could I lose him when I loved him so much?

My love couldn’t keep him here, though. He melted away. But we really flew for awhile. And maybe I’m not the boy in these stories. Maybe I am the snowman, the velveteen rabbit — my love for Alec brought me to life. I recall my friend Mike saying, during one of our many conversations when I was in the initial, noisier and messier, throes of grief, something about how knowing our time with our loved ones is finite makes it more beautiful somehow (and especially in the case of those of us who love dogs, we’re just asking for it since their average life spans are so much shorter). I could be making that up but I am pretty sure he said almost exactly the same thing as Blaine, but rather than referring to stories about snowmen and such he was talking about real life. I thought that was horseshit. I wanted Alec back, that was all. I knew our time together was beautiful. I knew it every day. But I wanted him to grow old. I wanted more time.

But nothing gold can stay. And as with the boy and the snowman in the story, Alec and I packed a lot of life, love, and happiness into our seven years together. Although it wasn’t much of a comfort at the time, I knew this when he was sick: our relationship was so rich, so full of joy and gratitude (on my end – I certainly can’t speak for him!), that we had packed more good stuff into our lives together than many relationships that last much longer. It didn’t make losing him any easier. But as I reflect — as the loss becomes less immediate, making reflection actually possible — I do see the beauty, the magic in it.

Although sometimes I wonder if I made it all up, you know? He’s not here anymore to verify what I once knew so assuredly. It’s just me. Just like the guy in that Weakerthans song who sees Bigfoot and nobody believes him. What does he say? “But the visions that I see believe in me.” I always liked that line. So at the end of my pondering, I have concluded what I like about these stories is the magic, the sense of wonder and possibility, not the sad ending. And that’s okay. Just as it’s okay for others to like, or at least appreciate, the sad endings. It is a fair question — does brevity make things more beautiful? — but as for me I probably would have honestly been just as happy if the snowman and the boy kept having their magical rendezvous every night until the end of their days. But there it is. There is always an end. One night, 30 nights, seven years. I loved Alec before he was mine. To me it was magic not only that we met and connected, but that I got to adopt him at all. Without hyperbole I can say that being able to bring him home, finally, was the fulfillment of the dearest wish I have ever held. There is magic in that…in our wishes coming true, in connecting so strongly with another in this life, whether they be human or nonhuman. I hoped there would be magic in our separation, that I could keep him with me somehow. And who knows?

When I was little I used to play a game called Stuffed Animal Town. I would build a miniature town out of books and have my stuffed animals walk around and do things and talk to one another. Besides reading, it was one of my favorite pastimes and I could get lost in pretending for hours. One of my ex-boyfriends used to tease me when I would go off on my occasional flights of fancy (ahem, not that I do that a lot or anything) by saying I had gone to “stuffed animal town.” I always thought that was funny. But the thing is since an early age I have been imaginative and had a fondness for stories about magical friends and stuff. It is a childish trait that part of me never left behind, which is why these stories are so dear to me. And now I have a real someone to project all of this fanciful stuff onto – Alec! I wrote in my last post that it was a leap for a skeptic like me to decide that Alec and I could never be separated and that he would always be with me (my #1 coping mechanism).But as I ponder, perhaps Stuffed Animal Town is my “religion” and therefore it’s not as big a leap as would first appear. I have always wanted the world to be enchanted, from a young age. I grew up and out of it to an extent (let’s hope so!) but part of me will always be back there playing Stuffed Animal Town and arranging my stuffed animals on the bed so the blanket doesn’t suffocate them while I’m out. I guess that’s part of who I am. And I guess also it’s obvious why these stories speak to me. They are like the ultimate wish fulfillment for someone like me, whereas a more normal person may interpret them, well differently. I don’t have a good conclusion here. Sometimes it’s just good to ponder, and wander. And wonder.

Musical postscript: The theme songs for this post are Bigfoot! by the Weakerthans and “Abominable Snowman in the Market” by Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers. Enjoy.

1 Comment

Filed under Grief and loss, Magic, Snowmen

One response to “Nothing gold can stay.

  1. My friend Blaine wrote an awesome response to this post in an email. With his permission I wanted to excerpt it here because it stirred up a lot of additional thoughts and feelings in me, which I’m sure will make their way into a post soon!

    So here is Blaine:

    …I wanted to tell you, again, how much I loved your “Nothing Gold Can Stay” blog post. And not just because you quoted me (you’re more than welcome to, btw…even if I think I sound like a total dunce whenever I reread my own words ;-)), OR because you quoted Robert Frost (whose poetry I love) but because those are the same kinds of things that I love to ponder, too. So, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to add a few additional thoughts. Also, since I base my life more on little intuitions/epiphanies than any coherent life philosophy, you’ll have to bear with me if I jump around a little bit.

    Most importantly, I completely agree that the most important lesson to be taken from both “The Snowman” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” is the magic and mystery (“the wonder and possibility”) that exist in the world. I think both books serve as a kind of wake-up call to acknowledge all of the little, everyday miracles that surround us – from the magic of nature (snowflakes, rainbows, meteor showers) to the magic of our relationships with other living creatures (love, friendship, that secret life – the little gestures, inside jokes, private language – that blossoms in really close connections) to the magic of our imaginations (creativity, anthropomorphized stuffed animals, stuffed animal town) and on and on. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that most of the major religions talk about children as being the closest to spiritual perfection or childlike simplicity as the thing to aim for. But even so, it seems like the simplest things are the easiest to forget and that’s the same way I feel about this magic. We’re surrounded by it but we lose sight of it so easily when we get lost in our distractions or go on automatic pilot. So, yes, I think magic is definitely the biggest part of it.

    As for the sad ending, I should first tell you that I’m not a masochist, either. If I were king of the universe, loss would be something that human beings would never have to face. But since life is what it is, I almost wonder if the sad ending serves another valuable lesson in a “pssst, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses” kind of way. For example, there are times when I’m busy doing something (playing on the computer, reading a book, etc.) and Kaija wanders up wanting some attention. At moments like these, it’s very easy to just give her a little pat on the head and get back to my business but, sometimes, I’ll have this deep awareness that whatever else I’m doing can wait. At the root of this, of course, is that I know I can’t take anyone or anything for granted. And I think that, perhaps, the sad endings of both books are the reminder not to. So even though I don’t enjoy sad endings, particularly, for their own sake (as you said, there’s enough sadness in the world without the help of children’s books), I’m grateful that they exist and for the lesson that they teach – they may actually sweeten and enrich life a little bit. Maybe that’s the bittersweet beauty in them.

    Lastly, on the subject of loss, I wanted to share a story from a few years ago that really helped me make peace with the idea of losing someone (or something special): I used to have a good friend who had been to India and while she was in India, she kept an extensive journal of her travels, thoughts and impressions. It was priceless to her and when she came back to St. Louis, she kept the journal in her purse. A few months later, she was mugged in front of her apt. building and both her purse and journal were stolen. As she was telling me the story and how completely devastated she was that this irreplaceable thing had been ripped forever from her hands, I was trying desperately to figure out some words of comfort. And then something occurred to me that I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to relate to her: even though the physical journal was gone, the experience of her trip was intact and would remain with her as long as she lived. That experience could never be taken from her.

    If this idea sounds vaguely familiar to you, it could be a far less clever version of Mark Rowland’s idea of episodic memory vs. the deeper memory that’s permanently etched into our beings (to be fair, even when I came up with it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t an original idea). But that’s exactly the same way I feel about losing loved ones, too, and it’s the only thought that really comforts me because, unlike the possibility of an afterlife, I know it’s 100% real. Even though physical things deteriorate and memories fade, those people and experiences come out in the way we approach life, the words we say, the way we treat other people. It’s kind of like the idea in physics that matter can never be destroyed…the forms and atoms and molecules are just constantly changing. Obviously, it’s not the same as having the physical person/thing back (what is?) but it truly brings me peace to know that everyone and everything that I’ve ever loved (remembered or forgotten) still lives on within me and makes me the person that I am today. If there isn’t a certain beautiful magic in that, I guess I don’t know what magic is.

    That was too good not to share. Thanks Blaine!

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