I know it’s that time of year again because I heard the sound of the slamming of car doors and rumbling of heavy feet on pavement. It’s not hard to figure out when it is by the fading echoes of house parties, the too-soon-gone smells of backyard grilling (more like backyard bratwurst burning), the sweat beginning to bead on the back of everyone’s necks, and the sight of dumpsters overflowing with abandoned furniture. Then… the sudden silences and absences, the stray cans and empty plastic bags lying about as evidence young people were here. Oh, and then there’s the stuffy uncomfortable stench of quickly left unclean apartments… with the windows all open to let out the bad air (as if that’ll help convince the landlord that things were left tidy). Even the laundry room is filled with the scent of mildew towel and wet carpet as the last to leave wash the last of their household linens. I don’t dare do any laundry until the washing machines get disinfected after my neighbors move out. Oh, yes. It’s the end of May!
It comes a few weeks early here in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. I always dread it because it’s as if this city starts to take a nap. The only other time of year this sort of thing happens is in mid-December. Winters and Summers are dead times here. The students go home or take off into the world and it does seem to feel I live like the lone survivor in a Zombie apocalypse movie for a little while (I even look like one right now dressed in a scruffy T-shirt I only wear to bed, shorts I never wear in public, and my hair and face unwashed). I pretty much hide in my bedroom before June officially starts. I get supplies and groceries to last me a few weeks so I do not have to go out for anything. I’ll live on sandwiches and soup, live for drawing and writing, and basically keep all to myself. It’s like indoor camping.
This year I have to bid a fond farewell to my favorite neighbor. She was probably the best, sweetest, loyal, honorable and most trustworthy neighbor I’ve EVER had. I also proved to be the same for her. She used to count on me to babysit her ball python, Iggy, and her cat, Randy. I am going to miss her daily violin practicing and the occasional live music when her jazz fusion band came over to play. She would apologize for the noise, but unlike neighbors who don’t know how to play, she’s a professional musician — she doesn’t make noise, she creates music, believe you me, there is a difference.
I don’t want to say good-bye.
And she isn’t the only neighbor I’ll be saying good-bye to this year. Many neighbors I got attached to seeing everyday have already left before I could wish them well. They just disappeared. One day they were hanging around, the next — gone! I just walked to check my mail and noticed all the emptied apartments. People I had seen for years who became just another part of the environment have gone Splitsville. I forgot that no one stays here forever. I am used to most of my neighbors being non-traditional students and find them all delightful, polite, friendly, and responsible human beings, but eventually they graduate and move on.
This reminds me I should move on someday, too.
As I really started to get depressed about this, one of my favorite paintings came to mind. “War” by Anna Lea Merritt expresses, to me, in the faces of the women watching their men go off to war, the various reactions to bidding farewell to, possibly for the very last time, people you love. Of course I’m not forced to say good-bye to my neighbors like I would if they were going off to war, but it feels like their sudden absence forces me to face the inevitable parting of ways between people. I look into this painting and see a reflection of how I feel. I am the one staying here, deciding to be at home while the rest go, and I wonder when will be my day to leave, if ever? As I look into this painting, I put myself into it and feel the colors, the expressions, experience it and recall it like a memory. This is how I respond to historical art — from that deeply emotional place — so much so I tend to weep when I walk through art galleries featuring paintings from long ago time periods. I get lost in it. Even looking into this painting online, I am on the verge of exhaling into a long howl of a cry.
I can “hear” those marching soldiers’ feet, sense the dread of coming war, the uncertainty of whether or not someone you love is going to come back home, and that innocence of the child asking silently: “Do they have to go? Why does this have to happen? Can’t they stay here?” In those faces there’s also putting up a brave front, being instructed to stay strong, not show any tears, but you and I know that the woman at the center of the painting (the one the rest of the women all cling to) she’s going to weep the one moment she gets to herself. She’s taking on the burden more than the others. There is no happy sending off, no glorious launching or colorful parade for the heroes behind the scenes there. However, what is hinted in the distance is the rest of the crowds waving palms, laurels, and flowers to bless the soldiers as they leave. They are supporting these men and providing much-needed morale, yet… yeah, beyond all that it’s not a grand happening. It’s a miserable business, this send-off.
I’m better at welcoming people back over watching them go away.
Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that my neighbors are all moving on with their lives. The apartments we live in are like stay-in-all-year-long cabins situated next to the woods, not really meant to be places where you can have kids or plant roots, plus the electric is very costly in the winter and the walls are thin. The rent has gone up and so many improvements have to be made to the property, it’s not funny. It’s a flawed, yet quaint area filled with pleasant memories for me. So many friends I’ve known have lived here, I’ve partied here, I’ve met interesting folks here, and I get to see wildlife — both the human and animal kind — up close and personal each seasonal change. But with those changes comes a lot of good-byes, hellos, and only to say good-bye once agains! It’s not a bad life, being an observer, recording my experiences, using each encounter I’ve had as fodder for stories and art, expressing my love for people in each face I draw and paint.
However, the good-byes are hardest to get through. It does not make me look forward to summer like the rest of humanity does. There is not much to do when the university is closed. Most of the friends I make are gone and I won’t get to hear from until summer’s end. The warm months are lonely adventure times that, sure, I enjoy, yet it is not as fun as when I share experiences with a friend. And, howevers, the summer is a necessary alone time for me to concentrate on creating stuff. Without all this alone time, I would not be able to produce anything.
So, temporarily, I suffer a mourning period for several weeks that provokes me into some extreme hermit behavior. I cry every night and latch on to every piece of sunshine I can hold on to while the time passes. Eventually, by mid-summer, I will get enthralled again by the magic all around me that comes when there is fewer people around, and spirit-smitten, art and poetry will flow out of me like…
Like the tears that flow out of me now.