Helen Stratford writes:

Keeping Time

Sunday I was seated on a park bench, beneath the branches of an elm tree, playing the squeeze box.  I had been sitting there for quite a while.  It was that intermediary point between late afternoon and dusk.  The amber street lamps ignited almost imperceptibly. Their soft glow accentuated the golden hues of the autumn foliage.  Topaz chips of glitter.  The skies were smokey and subdued.  The November winds twisted through the yellow leaves that had collected on the pavement.

With a symmetry intelligible only from altitudes, the park consists of a  maze of  concrete walkways, footpaths trimmed with wrought iron gates on either side, lined with benches.  At various points the pathways open into small piazzas, where skateboarders can circle and cruise, fathers can play catch with their sons, lovers can stroll, and pigeons can flock amidst a spray of crumbs. There are notable varieties of elms growing amidst such asphalt expanses, their roots writhing and swirling from the exposed and hardened surface of the earth,  protectively sectored by cobblestone masonry that designate where the ground ended and the concrete began.  Squirrels habitually shimmy up and down the gray bark of the trunks.  Dogs are drawn to sniff  the scent left by the squirrels, and, in summer months, the Hari Krishnas are known to gather beneath one particular elm, the largest in the park and centrally located.  The monks sit cross legged in their orange togas and shaved heads, and chant mantras.  And so to some, it has come to be known as the Hari Krishna tree. It is reputedly the oldest in the park, and serves as a centerpiece, of sorts, the spindle of a circular shaped plaza, the compass needle of a binnacle.  This tree serves to inform many of their bearings.  It is the source, the meeting place, so to speak.  Its branches gracefully extend themselves at great length, sloping and bending, with smooth, soft curves, inclined in all directions.  Its foliage provides shade to those who sit on the partial ellipses of benches situated around the interior parameter of the piazza.  It was on one such bench that  I sat late Sunday afternoon and into the early evening, with my instrument, savoring the unseasonably warm temperatures which combined with the brooding, tempestuous skies.

Barely visible amidst  the leaves at my feet, was a small cigar box i had bought from a neighbor at a sidewalk sale enroute to the park.  A wooden cigar box that she had transformed decades ago into a receptacle for keepsakes and mementos, by cutting and affixing a detail from a well known Modigliani to the topside of its wooden exterior.   Inside too, another well known female figure by the same artist was inserted into the underside of the lid.  It had probably been refashioned in during her college years, when many drank Mateuse and used the bottles as candlestick holders afterward.  Because of the predominate golds and browns,  the box was barely distinguishable from the dry crumpled foliage.

It was growing continuously darker. The skies had gradated from lavender to a deeper shade of amethyst.  The hours advanced like a troop of soldiers marching fearlessly into the frontline of an austere enemy line that awaited ahead.  The winds were recurrent, of varying velocity, sometimes gentle and enduring, other times occurring as sudden blast that seemed to be a torn segment from a greater gale, vanishing as instantly as it arrived.  When such winds passed through, they  swirled through the bed of leaves compiled beneath the elm, air lifting them momentarily and causing them to toss and turn in their suspended state, to flip and flop.  Those that remained on the ground seemed to chase each other in circles and scuttle across the concrete.  Toddlers were often induced to run from their mother’s side, and kick through the accumulating mound, further releasing  the rich and fecund aroma notable to the Fall.

Autumn has its own ominous beauty, calling us back, letting us know another season is coming to its conclusion – and, if only as an innuendo,  preparing us for what’s ahead.

People drew nearer, compelled by the plaintive cry of the music.  From various, directions they deviated temporarily from their course, beckoned by the distant appeal of the intoned melodies.   Combined with the magisterial beauty of the foliage,  the music persuaded many to take a seat , to rest and ponder for a moment.   Slowly  the crowd continued to gather, disparate individuals, who were permitted and persuaded to pause, to observe the richness and slender of the elements occurring about them. The foliage of the trees, the turgid skies, the fragrant aroma which seemed to be intensified by the unlikely threat of rain. Still visible, beyond the parameters of the park,  the soft wash of tenements and brownstones rising above the tree tops – Emitting a certain charm and appeal probably not so different than when Henry James inhabited such an address. Sienna, Rust, and Brown Brick edifices that retained a well kept stateliness, with water towers on their roofs, and onyx fire escapes zig zagging down their facades.

Each time a breeze passed through, a shower of leaves began to flutter from the elm.  It was a majestic, mesmerizing. An umbrella of falling petals.  Butter colored, the disengaged leaves flitted and fluttered, frivolously, in no particular hurry, catching glimpses of light as they descended, to the pavement below. They seemed to flicker, as the underside and topside of the leaves alternatively wavered, revealing the subtle gradation and variation in hue.  Throughout the park, and perhaps throughout the city, all the trees participated in unison.  Munificent showers of supple amber leaves, swept by the momentary tumult and turbulence of the tempest.  There were other varieties of trees as well.  The supple fan shaped leafs of the ginkgo,  the leaflets of the honey locust, and the massive, paw shaped leafs of the Oak, all contributing to the confetti of amber, gold and topaz.  It was stunning and ritualistic.  A moment that pulled everyone out of the confines of their own mentality to behold in unified wonder. It  induced the same awesome sense in all those that beheld with steadfast gaze –  the same feeling as experienced by all who had ever watched in generations past, regardless of the particular landscape or setting.

The descent of an autumn leaf is Iconic in this sense.  And en masse, symphonic.

Old timers could not help but  observe the occurrence and wonder, how many autumns they  had left.  They inhaled the caramel flavored air, smelling of summer’s sweetness slightly toasted in ghee.  Children leapt from their mother’s side to run beneath the cascade, with outstretched arms, kicking through the accumulative mound of leaves.  Mother’s watched from the benches, strollers parked nearby.   Soon, they thought,  it would be time for mittens and sleds, for ice skating on ponds  beneath a vast prairie  the stars.  But perhaps that was their own remembered winters they were envisioning.  For this was new york,  the nostalgic interlude was occurring within an urban landscape.

Strange how the past stencils itself so readily upon our apprehension of the future.

An elderly asian woman bent over from a nearby bench, and picked up a leaf to press between the pages of a volume she held in her lap.

A student wrote copiously in the pages of a composition book.

Lovers sat beside each other hand in hand.

Onlookers, incredulated by the great spectacle,  snapped photographs with their smart phones.

Still others shuddered to think of what waited in the coming weeks.  Leafless and barren, etched against the pallid and anemic skies, the elms would appear  attenuated and arthritic,  as if scrawled and scribbled with charcoal on low grade scraps of a sketch pad. Which is what the drab and dreary skies would be comparable to – cheap rag paper.  Even if propped on an easel, each day could be torn off from the tablet and discarded. Crumpled up and tossed on Avenue B. Temperatures would plummet.  In less than a month’s time, these very same trees would seem so gaunt and haunting.  And even that would only signify the beginning. The bleak passage toward the season of the Undertakers. The morticians and pall bearers whose elongated apparitions still stride along the widened sidewalks in front of the brownstones.  Tall wooden figures in tuxedo jackets and stripe pants, with top hats and walking sticks.

Perhaps it was the knowledge of what waited ahead, that  served to make these moments even more precious.  Increasing the intensity of the offering.  Likely it persuaded some to cling more tightly to the beauty unfolding before them.  To surrender.  To be pliant.

(Completion?  Finality?  Such concepts seem an anathema to the Divine.  God is an unaccomplished artist just setting out, and each day is an awkward clumsy sketch, that will be torn off and begun over. Constantly being altered, edited, modified. Never finished. Never perfect.  Always a work in progress. )

My fingers deftly knitted and crocheted the keys, as reminiscent melodies wheezed out.

The poignancy of the falling leaves compelled something in the depths of each singular heart to dance.  It reached in and invited the soul to tango.  Each interior landscape  was momentarilly transformed into a ballroom,  Roseland, a massive dance hall  in which an often unconuslted aspect of our being was called forth from the shadows and recessitudes to exult.  To be swung around in the rhapsodic embrace of a mysterious and faceless stranger.

The angels are always pleading to be let in.  They scurry amongst us.  Fleeting.  As Vaporous as the el greco clouds that were beginning to assemble overhead.

An ember in the smoldering ashes was stirred.  A glint, a glimmer. A gleam. For some, its always a matter of such a flame is being ignited. Or extinguished.

The skies darkened. A storm of pigeons squabbled. They strutted across the pavement in their red shoes and grey suits, clucking their heads to some unheard rhythm that had nothing to do with the songs i was cranking out.  Individuals seated on the benches eventually rose, drifting off in various directions, though their places were constantly replenished by new wanderers, that had been compelled by the music. Songs known the world over.  The theme from the Godfather. La Vie En Rose. Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  Songs that i had played throughout India, Morocco, South East Asia, Egypt, Europe.  Songs that had angered me rides on elephants in Udaipur,  camel rides across the moon drenched desert sands to the great pyramids.  Songs that had persuaded the old and unwanted indian women, sitting in endless succession along the dusty streets of Delhi, to remove bangles from their wrists and offer them in exchange for another melody.

No, please don’t go, they pleaded in Hindi.  The same appeal as we held toward these final rhapsodic days of the season.

Like the leaves, the songs had a universal appeal.

Beauty  is like that.  It has such traits and attributes.  It is capable of knocking down borders. Slipping through barriers.

Multitudes of men dressed in sheets followeed through Marrakesh singing Hi Lili Hi Lili Hi Lo.  Women in burkas peered out from the corners to watch in fascination.

Had the cigar box been more conspicuous it might have dissuaded many from pausing.  Especially the poor, the elderly, those who might feel guilty not being able to contribute.  Because the box was so submerged, people took no notice.  those who did, approached to thank me, and discreetly dropped a few dollars in before leaving.

It was when i began cranking out Moon River that another shower of butter colored leaves began to descend, prolonged by a breeze that did not want to let up.  The air seemed to suddenly condense and thicken with moisture.  The predicted evening rains were drawing closer. With darkness encroaching,  the glow of the street lamps seemed more vibrant, the chips of amber blazing throughout the park.  Like metallic chips in a painting by Hunterwasser.  Or Klimpt.  The line between dusk and twilight, between day and night, was disputable. The borders were being smudged.  The leaves fell in great multitudes.  Like the flakes of snow that fall when a child’s glass dome is shaken.  I lifted my gaze as my weathered fingers pressed on, and beheld the tree from its underside.  The leaves fell on my shoulders, on my lap, and on the bellows.  They collected in the rim of my hat.  They continued to descend into the innermost depths of my being.  They forced the lips open of an invisible mouth, one hitherto muted, that had remained undisclosed in my own interior darkness.  The beauty tore at the crack that sealed shut those lips. It ripped apart at the seam that confined its secrets.  Unrelentingly it pried.  And as the leaves continued to fall, and my fingers continued to press the succession of notes, while the bellows continued to expand and contract, to heave pendulously and with certain intent, the power of beauty suddenly yanked from the throat of that dark orafice – an apology to the universe.  Yes, suddenly my soul cried out.  It wrenched out a thank you.  The song continued like a moon lit river through the tributaries of the past. Bursting forth, from such unconsummated depths, a tacit and unprecedented gratitude for my childhood.  For growing up in the woods, and having a pond that my foster father had made with his bulldozer in a clearing formed after sawing down a lot of  trees.  There were brooks that tickled through those woods, with moss covered banks and gurgling black waters that fed into the pond. The earth, especially where the truncated stumps had been removed, smelled of anise and sasparilla. Of horehound. Overhead the stars began to glimmer.  The stars in the skies of my memory, and in the skies above tompkins square park, abolishing time. Eradicating the line between the past and the present.

The angels are always waltzing with the phantoms across such borders.  The spirits are entangled in each other’s embrace, dancing amid the casualties and corpses.  The shapeless shadowy adumbrations.

How many leaves had fallen from the elm in the few hours i had played.  Hundreds? Thousands?  Tens of thousands?  How many autumns had i played through.  How many more awaited?   Each a requiem as much as a rendezvous.

The rapture induced by the falling leaf. Multiplied to the square root of poetry.  Some would call it God’s duplicitous sense of mercy.  For it diverted our attention from the branch that was being denuded.  Slowly, incrementally, death was nibbling at each limb, and licking its chops.  Gazing up from beneath the boughs, the heavens became increasingly more visible.Seconds passed.  Minutes.  Hours.  Time marched like an indefatigable  troop of soldiers impervious to the passage that had left so many of us battle weary. The most we could do was trudge. And even that would be with belligerence.


Soon the snow would fall and the branches would be articulated by its accumulation, as would the park benches and the railings of the wrought iron fences. The swing sets of a nearby play ground would creak arthritically in the wind.

Suddenly a mother rose,  lifted her toddler from the pile of leaves, and began dancing with him in her arms.

Dream maker.

Heart breaker.

Helen Stratford

November 8th 2015

Completed November 12th


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