After Thanksgiving, New Years Day is my favorite holiday. Unlike the gifts of Christmas or the costumes of Halloween, New Year’s Day brings with it no obligations. You’re just supposed to relax, and not work, and think about the year that just ended and the year that just began. If you’re hungover, maybe the day is about regret. If you’ve made a series of resolutions, maybe it’s about hope. But it’s a day that is profoundly uninterested in itself. There is no present-day New Years Day. It’s a 24-hour frame in which the past and the present collide and come to life, before work and life intrude and drag us back into the now, where we spend the rest of our lives.
Bird, the protagonist of Noy Holland’s first novel Bird, doesn’t live in the now. She has children and a husband. And she’s a perfectly capable woman. But Bird is obsessed with her past relationship with a man named Mickey. When she was with Mickey, they were poor and addicted to drugs. He’d disappear for days. She never knew what was going to happen next. The possibility of death was ever-present. But she never felt so alive as she did then. The life of motherhood feels vague and dreamy, whereas life with Mickey was present and energetic and filled with drama. It was a love affair with now.
Bird sees her son off to school. He’s reluctant:
He has grown up enough he has had the dream of reaching the schoolyard naked. He doesn’t want to go. His stomach hurts him, he says, his head. His head feels like two heads, actually, and the front head is really small.
”Mama, can’t I just stay home, Mama, and lie around with you?”
She keeps still for a beat to love him, loves him, a breath, like a lunatic, before she starts the push out the door. The morning hunt and gather. She finds his coat he flung under the trampoline, permission slips stuffed in the pockets. One glove. Some other kiddo’s cap.
Holland’s sentences are tiny crystalline figures, all lined in a row, each perfect in its own way. In less than half a page she captures the weirdness of a child’s internal life (that two heads ailment is so bizarre but also so relateable that I almost understand exactly what he means) and the struggle of parenting (what would have happened if she didn’t stay still to love him?)
Compare the dreaminess of that passage with this reminiscence of Bird’s life with Mickey:
When it was summer still, days you could still ride a bike in your skirt or ride your girl around town in a ragtop, your dog; summer still, days kids bang the hydrants open and drive their bodies hard through the spray; Haitians on the stoop, hypodermics; music blaring up and down the street; summer still (No Sitting Aloud); White Castle burgers for breakfast (too hot to cook, too easy not to want to) for dinner, if they ate it, for lunch, for a time; days the ground-up mess of their haunches still healed from skidding out on Bird’s bike in the street, the skin mounding over the glass they had picked up, tried to pick out, evermore would carry; days the willows in the park wore their hair down still for Mickey and Bird to lie under, in the sun should the wind allow it, in the shadows on their faces as they slept; before the nights cooled, before the first leaves turned, Bird and Mickey thought to find a place together.
They found a place burned up by a voodoo drummer who had left his candles burning. Cat tipped over the candlestick. The kitty litter ignited. The guy was banging his skins, meantime, at a fertility rite in Queens.
Those two passages were clealy written by the same careful hand and vivacious mind, but they couldn’t be any more different. The modern-day Bird floats from observation to observation, but she’s barely there, a pair of eyes floating around. Bird, when she’s with Mickey, is collecting experiences, soaking up every physical detail: the smell of a nearly burned-down apartment, the music on the streets, the feel of glass buried just under skin. The past is more real, more visceral, than the present, which takes place in a sort of purgatory.
Holland wisely doesn’t pit the past directly against the present. Bird acknowledges that living with Mickey nearly killed her, that sentimentality for those times would be foolish and irresponsible. But she still can’t help but feel that the past was alive in a way that the present can’t be. When she’s reminded of Mickey, everything about her comfortable present fades away and the smells and fears and raw skin ache of the past becomes real.
Bird takes place over a single day, (“The day begins. Nothing will stop it.”) but it’s a day in which Bird relives the entirety of her relationship with Mickey. On every page, you’ll find a sentence that could make you dizzy, and as they feed one into the other, you get swept up into Bird’s story and her choices, and her longing, and her realization that longing is silly.
Bird doesn’t take place on New Years Day, but it might as well. It’s a day in which the veil between present and past is almost impossibly thin. And the past is so pungent and alluring and animal that it overwhelms the present and it forces Bird to forget, entirely, about the future. The future is not a character in Bird; it’s not even the Godot who’s discussed but never materializes. It might as well not exist; for Bird, the past is everything and the present is an inconvenience. (“Bird slips her hand between her legs and sees his face again. So quick the heat, sweet wandering star that blasts apart in her head.”)
This is a peril for Bird, and for all of us on days like New Year’s Day: the future is hard. We have no control over it, we can only make suggestions. That diet might end when you get tongue-kissed by a dump truck whose driver missed the stoplight. Your engagement could end in a tumor. Your boss might have a pink slip on her desk right now that directly imperils your dream vacation savings account.
Or maybe there is no dump truck or clutch of tar-black cells or layoff notice in your future. Maybe things will go according to plan. Or maybe they’ll go even better than you’d hoped. You can dream of that happening, too, but it feels like false optimism, or jinxing yourself.
But here’s the thing: the past is the realest thing we own, the most incontrovertible truth we know. And that’s why we shouldn’t spend too much time there. Uncertainty is scary, but it’s what makes life into life. On days when the lines between past and present and future go hazy, it’s always a better option to close your eyes and reach out for the future. The past will eat you alive, if you let it.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant