If I could tell you…

If I could Tell you

By W. H. Auden

Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,

If we should stumble when musicians play,

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,

Because I love you more than I can say,

If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,

The vision seriously intends to stay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,

And all the brooks and soldiers run away;

Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

Auden wrote this villanelle, one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite poets, when he was living in NYC in late 1940 and the future in his native England – and all of Europe – looked bleak, with the German bombing campaign (the blitz) of Great Britain beginning in September of that year. He felt that civilization itself was under threat and a sense of uncertainty about the future, sentiments that resonate today, between the global pandemic and closer to home, the horrors conveyed during the current impeachment trial.

It is in these uncertain times that V turned 20 on Tuesday, February 9th, and I am no longer the mother of teens. Like many a momentous day it was at the same time altogether ordinary, Tuesday being not so different from Monday or Wednesday, the way the past year with all its constraints has rendered a sameness over the days with slight gradations based on sleep, mood, food and weather. Still, we celebrated as best we could, lighting candles on a beautiful delicious birthday cake courtesy of B, who was home to help us celebrate the occasion; his presence was the biggest gift of all.

2020 and 1940 had much in common, the world faced unfamiliar terrifying threats to our safety, to any sense of security that we took for granted in previous years. The videos shown at the impeachment hearing are so horrifying as were the photos taken of the blitz, which lasted into 1941. It’s hard to live in uncertainty at any age but especially for young adults like B just starting their lives. I wish I could tell him and the millions of others in his shoes when things will improve. If I could tell you I would let you know. But I know nothing, an admission that is at once anxiety-producing and liberating.

As for V, he has his own challenges from the past year. While oft cited research shows that parents of teens with autism have the stress level of combat soldiers, three days past teenhood it is not as if that stress level vanishes. The role and responsibility of being a caregiver if anything only gets more pressing as V gets older, especially with the past year of regression and trauma rather than the progress we had hoped for if he had access to a full week of school and internships and all the efforts to increase independence and prepare for adulthood. And for B, like his typical peers in their early twenties, what a lousy world they have to navigate on their own path, the far more welcoming entry to adulthood that would have greeted him just a few years prior instead replaced with a tanking economy, a bleak job market, an altogether uncertain future.

I turn to poetry because it is a way to process and make sense of the world without the limitations of a linear narrative, one with grim statistics and facts that make it hard to break through reality and imagine a bright future or welcome surprises. It is a reminder that uncertainty is a constant and we cannot know how we will see this time years from now, that things like post-traumatic growth and gifts might be revealed in ways we cannot yet know. As Pema Chodron says, “the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything else.” So I try not to cling.

Auden lived most of his adult life in New York: an immigrant, a gay man, a poet, his otherness a challenge offset by the ways being an outlier can enable one to see truths that others are too close to or closed off from to recognize.  He acknowledged and embraced the mysteries of life in a way that I have to work on everyday.   The fact that V is somehow 20 and I am 60 is still hard to wrap my head around.  We both seem somehow much younger and yet there is no denying the passage of time, and that it will say nothing but I told you so in ways I will have to wait to discover with a faith I have to conjure anew each day. 

6 thoughts on “If I could tell you…

  1. Happy birthday V! With a surprise from B! Prayers that the year ahead will get easier for all and for the country!


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