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Where Mary Poppins Failed Me

When I was 8 years old, I decided to give flying a really serious go, Mary Poppins style. I found an old black umbrella, and—after I had made certain nobody was watching me through the kitchen window—I raced down our sloping back garden, building up speed, feeling the lift of the fresh Spring wind tug at my skirt and blast the umbrella away from me just enough that I could feel the black flapping plastic drawing me upwards. I was certain that somehow, if I timed it right, I would achieve lift-off. That tantalizing tension was enough to compel me to tramp back up the slope and try again and again—but after over an hour of struggling, I had to acknowledge that a moment of almost-lift-off was all I was going to get. When I finally folded the umbrella, I was still nagged by the feeling that the fault lay in my technique, or a lack of practice. The potential of hitting that tipping point, that cusp of flight, still felt painfully—and thrillingly—real.

There is something about a cusp—the word itself, the sound of it, the tension of the reptilian, sensuous curves, shaved by the clipped, brusque opening consonant—it is both an expansive but also tightly wound word, the sharp edge of the wave from whose edges the water slides down in liquid avalanches, the place where one pauses before the plummet. The phrase “hanging in the balance” doesn’t express it, because by hanging, one can exist suspended forever. A cusp, however, is a dangerous ecstatic moment where the view is glimpsed then hidden by the cliff that rises as you fall, and once more you are in a valley of water, of space, of situation. A cusp is a neat thing, and there is no time to glance over your shoulder—that would take too long. A cusp is to be reached for, then tripped over, the catalyst for a great and glorious fall into … the new.

And so we are here, another cusp to shiver on for a moment before we are tipped into the new year. But so much can happen in that moment—space and time can, miraculously, be held like a breath, just long enough perhaps, to feel the almost-flight, the possibility that we could simply soar off into the vastness.

At the chiropractor’s I overheard an elderly patient say resignedly that she doesn’t like New Year’s Eve; it only makes her sad. I wondered, as I lay strapped unobtrusively to the traction machine, whether the cusps widen with age, and become sort of balconies instead, from which we observe the old year march by in its tattered parade and the newly-minted band march in to take its place? Then this is something else she was describing, I decided—the morning after, the afternoon before.

Because that one moment of midnight when no matter how drunk you are, somehow the ability to count from 10 to 1 remains perfectly intact, when strangers link arms and fireworks explode, and we all spin for a moment in that rush of this time it’s really going to work—our metaphorical Mary Poppins umbrellas are up and we’re rushing down a hillside and it’s—now! Together! GO!

And I love that moment.

On that cusp, we are immortal, and the new year opens not as twelve new months, but as Eternity. Being a pathologically deep thinker, I wonder if it is possible to somehow take hold of that feeling and keep it as we wake up several hours later, clean up and have a fated look at that list of grand accomplishments we will hold before us in 2015. I wonder if we can continue to feel its glow as we roll our sleeves up to get on with treading that new path, that long upward climb.

Because maybe that glow has shown us what life actually is—underneath the dross and rain, the violent ungiving-ness of our world. That moment of midnight is a sort of time-space-continuum poem, a metaphysical haiku, transformative in such a tight, sharp space. And maybe, just maybe, it’s even a poem we can fold up and keep in our pocket, where it can—if not light our way—perhaps suggest a new, heartfelt reason to tread it.

Happy New Year.

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