Change. It’s in your pocket, in one sense, but you’re in its pocket in another.
That is, we are all pawns on the chessboard of change. It happens. Sometimes, as our lives change, we come out unscathed. Sometimes we even find ourselves in a better place. But other times, unbeknownst to us, we are moments away from being swiped off the board by a bellicose bishop.
The poet Charles Rafferty composed a theme on a variation of change with the poem “Drift.” It connotes a more gradual change. One we don’t notice until we do. Like stars moving across the heavens on the darkest of summer nights. They look as still as ice crystals stuck to a celestial map, and yet movement here is causing drift up there.
Let’s see if we can discern the movement in Rafferty’s poem:
by Charles Rafferty
Long ago, the old friends stopped calling. I used to think they had
lost my number. Now I forgive them their children and their jobs,
their wives and their divorces, their cancer and their lawns, the fifteen
minutes they allow themselves at the piano every night. I am able to go
on without them—a kind of orphan from the life I used to live. This is
what I’m thinking as I get in the car to take my daughter to her voice
lesson. The ride is a quiet one. She is getting older and has learned to
keep things to herself. When we arrive at the lesson, she makes it clear,
without saying so, that I should wait outside. So I stay in the car—doing
the bills, doing the things I hate—as her high notes drift through the
studio door, the glass of the car window, the air that will be between us
now from here until the end.
In Line 2, Rafferty uses parallel structure to good effect as he forgives his former friends “their children and their jobs, / their wives and their divorces, their cancer and their lawns, the fifteen / minutes they allow themselves at the piano every night.”
In the distant unknown we once called friendship, there is drama playing out. Always, it seems. Some comedy, but often tragedy. Tolstoy’s prophetic “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And boy, it’s rough when you see “cancer” casually paired off with “lawns” like that.
So life drifts on. In one of the strongest phrases in the poem, the narrator refers to himself as “a kind of orphan from the life I used to live.”
Then he finishes with his daughter. A ride to her voice lesson. A ride that, ironically, includes very little voice in the car because she “has learned to / keep things to herself.”
What scares me a bit is the ending. Sitting outside in the car, the narrator hears his daughter’s voice “drift” (get it?) outside to “the air that will be between us / now from here until the end.”
Ouch. A drift that crash lands into permanent change. But me, I’m going to take solace in two places—a Mark Twain quote and my own experience. First, the Twain. He once said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
True, some teens are susceptible to sullen years where their friends are everything and their parents are a minor (or major) inconvenience, but I’m happy to report that, in my kids’ cases, it all came around full circle. Somehow I learned a thing or two over the years. Somehow I was worth talking to and listening to again.
Like the tide, then. Change can drift in and drift out. Still, Rafferty’s poem points to the subtleties that can sneak up on us. And when a little reflection makes you realize that they have, you get… poetry.