A Fragile Exchange

Knit-bomb elves in Pioneer Square

Celebrating my 10th winter here, I’ve come to know that solstice means more in Seattle than many places. We’re gray enough and far enough north that a change in the balance of natural light is more than a date on the calendar — it’s an expansion of hope.

This year more than ever, it has felt dark to me, markedly silent. I’ve witnessed days when not a single person utters a sound on the bus to work in the morning. The driver calls out stops, pausing every few blocks to let on and off a busload of ghosts who have lost the will to moan or rattle their chains.

Restrained beneath a filter of heavy clouds, the sun begins to fall around 1:30 pm in Pioneer Square where silent knit-bomb elves stitch together stockings for our chilly and equally silent leafless trees. Upon spying fellow passersby dressed in black overcoats and knit caps, I strain to hear a clip-clop of heels on the red brick, but our footsteps are thin and soundless. It’s as if we aren’t there.

At 4:30, when everything turns black, we congeal from wispy specters into tar people, dripping with ink. Our shadows and bodies entwine, held fast by dark nooks and crannies in the low-lit buildings that surround us. Leaves no longer blow, but remain in soundless piles, having lost their crunch.

Seattle of the past holds a thin breath, waiting not to exhale but expire. It’s the beginning of the end for 2011, now terminally leaking its potency. The old year withers to make room for an unannounced but budding future that awaits beneath the frozen crust.

January 1 may be the official flip of the dial, but for me, December 21 represents the real turning of the tide, the beginning of something brighter and louder, a far-off marching band turning the corner of South Jackson, revealing the shining blare of horns, the tight punctuation of snare drums.

Even in my anticipation of the exchange between old and new, I’ve come to relish the last few days before it occurs. Time itself feels brittle and delicate, holding us captive in stasis, a city inside a swirling snowglobe. Seattle in silence is something to be tenderly observed–the perfect peace of a bell jar, at once protective and easily fractured.

For the next few days, I’ll savor the silent passings and deserted streets, the series of whispers muffled by the dampened affection of mittened hands.

Before we know it, they’ll be gone.

The deaf syncopation of boots echoes silently on our streets,
One and then the other, disturbing nothing and accounting for nothing.
There is no sunrise, no rosy fingertips of dawn, but a space of dark and gray–
And then more dark and gray.
It’s quiet, like snow, except it’s neither crisp nor sharp but
Thin, hazy, and silent: a post-exhale world without the hint of new breath to come.

This space is a wheeze, a rasp, a rale–
A heavy expiration filled with the wetness of pneumonia,
Bleeding out every last molecule of oxygen until silence falls
Thicker and heavier, like miles of velvet curtain, snuffing out the actors beneath it,
Not with a thud or a commotion, but with the steady grasp of a slow strangle that raises no alarm.

The past expires, unmourned.

With no voice to speak of, the twinkling lights appear ironic in comparison,
Yet so pure is the power of color, of light, that we believe in them–
A succession of trussed-up Tinkerbells
That act as a beacon, leading us from one evening to the next,
Stirring our feet to move, our lungs to inspire with a zap of electric hope.

That jolly parade becomes our escort to the other side.
A multi-colored lifeline during our darkest days
When the sun reclines on its fainting couch just before 2 pm,
When more leaves are ground into wet oblivion underfoot than hang from branches,
When the impenetrable canopy of gray seamlessly meets sidewalks littered with spent plastic bags
And the failed Viaduct, whose ashen concrete and rebar lay sprung open like a gutted alarm clock.

Then, as swiftly as we spiraled into this oubliette,
A ray of promise appears and we can breathe again.
As soon as we do, we forget.
The sun rises and –once again–
Its light is deafening.

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