Standing Before the Millennium Line
by Gillian Jerome

"That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there, and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it, like a lover; "
(William Goyen, House of Breath)

My pregnant body has thrust me into a new relationship with time and space: each moment slows and expands as if I am walking underwater. Extra weight slows me down: the blood, the baby and the ocean she swims in. My body is working as it never has before growing another human: two months ago she opened her eyes, she grew body hair, she hiccupped; this month her nails will grow to the tips of her fingers and toes. Eight months ago, she was a single cell. That cell was singular for an instant; it divided and multiplied into a cluster of cells, morphed into an embryo the size of an apple seed; a couple of weeks later she became a fetus resembling a potato on the ultra-sound screen.

Every part of me responds to her becoming. I move along Commercial Drive in a current of bodies and I am an octopus, an organic contraption of kicking limbs: I'm not sure where I begin or end, or whose foot belongs to whom. I am both cell and world, swollen and ponderous at every moment. The womb is the archetypal ocean: it pulls me inward, closer to this new being, and fully alive in the combined solitudes of dream and thought.

I've just moved to Vancouver and for the first time since childhood, I'm absorbed in the details of my neighbourhood, not only in the life which surrounds me-a leaf, an ant, a stone-but the people and places which give a city meaning. A reel of film unravels in my mind, projected onto the future: this is our daughter stretching her little hands to touch dirt for the first time; now she kneels in a pile of birch leaves; here, by the landmark Grandview Bowling Lanes, she points to a neon pin and asks, "What's that?" For the time being, she's nesting in the womb thicket and I'm discovering the world again.

Just a block away from the sky train station at Commercial and Broadway, a new station is being built beneath an overpass. I watch the builders work as the light moves around them. Each morning, I veer from the current of commuters to position myself at the railings. Steam rises from the earth and the leaves from the nearby trees smell rotten with their own decay. Seventy-five feet down an old train track rusts its orange, oxidized steel into puddles of rain. Fifty feet up from the ground, along a shelf of earth held in by a concrete wall, yet another passage way is built between these banks: a sky train station to be called Commerical, a new stop on the Millennium Line.

Standing here on the overpass, I am suspended between the old and the new: the world is forever changed; the world is exactly the same. Like all organic matter, the city is reinvented again and again. How many trains crossed the old tracks, the rusted ones down below? I can't can help but feel my predecessor's history. Who travelled here, and for how long? Imagine the power to see through the present: as if our realities were diaphanous curtains revealing layers of the past right down to the origin of a thing: train tracks, a defunct wagon route, a dried river empty of reeds. I wonder if cities lost forever, like people, continue to live in us. Is the baby inside me the sum of but one being, one time here on Earth?

***

The builders work in clusters. Some work alone with their heads hung, setting long rods of rebar before the concrete is poured. Each is marked by a neon x. The senior staff gesticulate with their hands and nod their heads, the kind of talk common to people who share skills or knowledge. I can't hear a word they say above the screech of industrial noise at twenty minutes past eight; instead I watch the light shoot from the metal frames of their glasses. Each man is made instantly brilliant by the sun, and then absorbed by shadow, each man drowns in the details of his work, oblivious to how he is erased and made real again by the flat autumn light. There is something magnificent about this though I can't say what it is.

It's amazing, the intelligence of the body. The last ten of my twenty-seven years have passed quickly. I've been oblivious to details, names, and faces unless I was forced to pay attention. I have missed buses, appointments, birthdays, due dates, family events, caused entirely by my knack for daydreaming. I have broken bones-two wrists, one arm, an ankle and two toes-by bumping into things I failed to notice. I once drove out of a downtown parking lot with the radio blasting. That afternoon I drove my family's mini-van home with an accordion door.

Thirty-some weeks into pregnancy, I'm learning how to look at the world again. The past is revealed in veins articulating the skins of rainy buildings, in piles of wet leaves. The material world is a matter of layers, a series of signs, a map of dreams. Can I say that one aspect of a city is truer than another?

***

There is a peculiar eros about bodies alive in the streets, creating something as ordinary as a bridge or a road as if by alchemy. I have never made a habit of stopping to watch builders at work; though today, and the for several days prior, I stop for a few minutes-sometimes more than I can spare-and I watch each small gesture: the net of light covering each head, the halt of steps as one considers the next task: how shall I do this? And then the worker plods on, in a daze of his own making. Does he picture in his mind, perhaps, the final outcome? Does he work piece by piece? Is he absent from the task at hand, dreaming of another life miles away from the jackhammer rattling his frame?

***

At the railing I'm absorbed into a gauntlet of onlookers. I can't see most faces, only profiles; I count them by horns of breath shot into the cold and their lunchbox hands dangling over the rails. The only female standing in a line of men over the age of fifty is instantly marked by the angle of her protruding belly: that is me. The sky is effusive overhead, white clouds burn themselves into a sea of searing blue; the sky belongs in an Ansel Adams photograph.

*

When the clock tower across the road reads 8:30, I walk to the station, absorbed in a throng of buses and cars, mothers with strollers, women and men on their way to work. The escalator is a moveable convoy; I ride, hop off, walk to the platform and sit down on a bench to rest my lungs. A woman with bleached hair and marble-blue eyes walks towards me, her boyfriend trailing, muttering to the world.

"All my thoughts come at once. They come faster than I can think them. It's like a tape played on fast forward." She laughs at him as she stuffs spoonfuls of Fruit Loops into her mouth. He takes the plastic container filled with milk and cereal from her and laughs like a shy, goofy kid. "These fruit loops are circles of thoughts just coming at me. And I'm eating every last one." He sets down a plastic grocery bag containing milk and Fruit Loops at his feet. She falls into him as if falling into a deep crevasse.

I board the sky train finally with only minutes to get to the office, and I stand in a throng of people forced to make room for my belly. It is morning and few people speak. Those seated in neat rows by the windows are absorbed in the world of their minds, their eyes closed or their gaze fixed against communication. I wonder what worlds we whiz past: dilapidated factories, rows of old tenements, condominiums with glass walls. I notice there's an ad asking passengers to give up their seats to people with canes and pregnant women. Am I to ask them or do they ask me? *

Attention is the basis of prayer, of any creative endeavour, of any necessary skill. It has been written about in one form or another in the sacred texts, from the Kabala to the Old Testament. Meditation is the practice of cultivating attention. The Buddhists say attention brings us to emptiness: a state of reverence, a trained mind. Yet, for all its ubiquitous involvement in centuries of thought, our culture works against attention, as it works against thought. This is no surprise: it's my own spiritual lesson.

**

The gypsies say that when a woman gives birth she enters the underworld. Moments after birth, when the baby is still a wet slither, the mother whispers a new and secret name into the baby's ear so that the gods loosed upon the world cannot steal its true identity. It takes days, sometimes weeks, they say, to resurface.

Where is it a woman goes to when she births? A midwife once said that birth is the ultimate practice of attention: the woman turns into the dark fields to push the baby out into its new life. She once witnessed a woman completely entranced during the second phase of labour. On all fours in the middle of her bed, she moved in concentric circles moaning with the power of a banshee. "Where did you go?" she asked her afterward. The woman looked at her for a long time before she smiled and replied, "Into the pain."

***

These days my body finds its own silence. Fruit flies swarm in wobbly loops around the days-old fruit peels left in the office garbage. I swat my hands; they dart into their nervous escape. Are they re-enacting their own wild birth? If I line my eyelids with sugar will they come?

**

The evening is made for listening, even to a structure emptied of its workers: the station platform stands so eerily still after so many machines pounding it into being. It is just after suppertime and a few neighbours with the same thirst for falling light walk for pleasure here. I set my elbows on the railing. A man stands five feet away, wrapped in his own thoughts. We acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. After some time, he gestures, he says, "Good evening."

It's amazing to witness the chaos of the living as the chaos of a single moment: the cycles of life and death appearing as holograms in the strange minutiae around us. The awe for me is often found both in the witnessing of the event itself and the sharing in it: the collective response to world we live in. A man drops a spade into earth; a sperm pierces the membrane of an egg. The world begins again; the world ends.


Gillian Jerome understands the perfection of some moment; trusts in it, more.



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