Wednesdays are precious because I can sleep without an alarm clock, waking and then walking whenever the sun stirs me. On teaching days, Reggie and I walk in the dim-lit morning or after-dark evening, but on Wednesdays, we can visit in full daylight the various neighborhood landmarks we see only faintly on other days.
Reggie and I do very little exploring these days, tending to choose the same streets and sidewalks day after day: our usual route. It’s as if the purpose of our twice-daily dog-walks isn’t to explore new places but to discover what is different about the old ones: a process of getting re-acquainted with a long-familiar place.
They’re building two new houses at the end of the street, clearing the weedy field that Reggie and I occasionally use as a shortcut, leaving a narrow fringe of scrubby trees that still shelters our resident Cooper’s hawk. Losing yet another shortcut is just the latest change to our usual dog-walk route, the first being the fencing (and then the demolition) of the old abandoned factory on Water Street, where this morning a boring crew was working with a tall drill, preparing this lot for whatever its next incarnation will be.
Land is too valuable for prime real estate to remain weedy and abandoned for long. The bike path Reggie and I have walked so many times on our way to or from downtown has been re-routed due to construction, the topography of its gentle slope–the low banks of an old railroad bed–taking on a new, unrecognizable shape. I can’t count the number of buildings that have sprung up–and are still arising–around Depot Square, with the new Moving Company mural pointing to the way Railroad Street has radically changed over the years I’ve lived in Keene.
Already, I have a difficult time remembering what the now-demolished portions of the warehouses at Beaver Mills looked like, their still-functional remnant being the only thing that remains. The old mill that was converted into retirement housing is finished and looks like it’s been here forever. Even the local basketball courts, whose construction necessitated the clearing of a row of birch saplings that felt like yet another loss when it happened in the months after my separation, now seem like they’ve been forever planted here, even acquiring their own fringing row of new birch saplings, narrow neighbors to replace the ones that were lost.
For every thing that passes, something arises in its place: this is the rule of both life and impermanence, the subtle and inextricable link between passing and continuance. The law of the living is that all things die; the law of the dead is that life goes on after you’re gone. Last night after dark, students in my Frontier in American Literature class sat discussing the string of deaths chronicled in Annie Dillard’s novel The Living, noting with quiet sadness the way that Ada Fishburn, one of the early-generation Puget Sound pioneers whose story the novel recounts, barely seems to mourn the sudden passing of her husband, Rooney.
Years before, en route to the Pacific Northwest, Ada’s young son, Charley, had died, crushed under the family’s own wagon wheels, and Ada and Rooney had quickly buried the child under a cottonwood tree in soil studded with the bones of previous emigrants. Soon after the burial, Ada, Rooney, and their surviving son had to move on, following their wagon train to the coastal frontier where Ada would bear two more children, lose one, then lose her husband in a well-digging accident: a numbing string of loss that leaves her resigned and reserved.
My students are young: they think that death is a tragedy that slams your life to a grinding halt. Older folks know the wagon train always moves on, with new things replacing the things we’ve lost: death is a tragedy, but its stoppage of time is merely temporary. Once they’ve read further, my students will learn that Ada Fishburn remarries and becomes Ada Tawes; my students will probably think she never loved her first husband, given she’s able to replace him. But I know that life is simply a series of replacements, this present thing being a consolation for that past one: every day, not just this one, is precious, with each one replacing its predecessor. The shocking realization isn’t that death happens but that life goes on, inexorably, the river of time continuing to flow whether you’re on the bank, watching, or slipped into the stream, afloat. All we ever have is time: time that is fresh and virginal when we’re young and seasoned with the ritual of replacement once we’re older.