An important day to millions and millions:--in order of historical precedent: the last day of flinty March (the god of war), the advent of April, the month of Venus; a long, degrading enslavement, then exodus, then arrival; a horrible death then resurrection.
The Pagan. The Jewish. The Christian. What they've left us is a window into their needs and hopes. Harsh, stubborn masculinity changing to the showers of feminine fertility, the reception of the earth, harvests ahead. The persecuted finding their way across the desert, each step guarded by their god, who parts the water for them, so they can find their true, destined home. And the other kind of persecution, the terror of death, of becoming nothing, transformed to a a promise of deliverance after life.
I stand apart from these traditions, thinking I understand their purpose, their deep passions. Doesn't one enact this evolution--for isn't each a theory of evolution?--in one's own life? Isn't the point of being here to find out what it means to be here? Isn't the point to enact one's own version of these transforming myths in the here-and-now of one's own life?
These great rites bound and bind millions, summoning them en masse to a consecrated act of identification and unity. But for those who stand apart from them, the daily work, from light to night, is none other than this work of self finding its purpose through the work of its mind, hands, imagination, and heart.
Yesterday it was close to 60--and sunny. It was warm in the sun, but the breeze still has the deep, wet chill of winter. I could feel it nosing around. If you were busy--raking, for example--you didn't feel it. But pause, and there it was, trying to find a way in.
Sitting at the window this morning, thinking about yesterday, I realized how odd it felt to be outside for a good part of the day. Inside for most of three months, I did not understand how used I was to walls, to my usual routes to this room and that. To the routine of being inside. Thinking about that, I saw that in a real way, even while I was outside I was still inside, for I carried the walls, the sense of moving from one room to another, with me. I was in the bubble of the winter months. Outside, I was still in my chair behind the double-glass, looking.
Unlike the children from up the block who came bursting out of their house on their bikes, taller, stronger, the same yet different from three months ago, finally not cooped up, I was more like the winter breeze, sniffing the world, trying to figure out where I was.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
At the window this morning, I saw that I was that "paltry thing," that "coat upon a stick," in a world flying away from me in every direction. Let's see if I can find, once again, the holy city.
My wife and I went to the wake last night. The casket was closed. Her husband sat in a chair in a row of chairs in front facing the room, the casket behind him. A smart and witty man, he cried when I shook his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, "this just comes over me." We sat together. He started to breathe quickly and heavily. "I'm all right. I don't have asthma. I do this to stay on top of it, to calm down."
His daughter and son were there; friends and neighbors were there. The casket was there.
Her daughter told me how quickly it went--taking her to the hospital, discovering a mass in her belly, treatment plans, cardiac arrest, death. In less than three days. "There would have been more surgeries," her son-on-law told me, shaking his head. "Her belly was as swollen as a basket ball." He shook his head again--a kind man with clear eyes. "She never complained. You'd never know anything was wrong." Her quick death they understood as a blessing, saving a sweet, intelligent woman from more suffering.
As I turned to leave I saw a poster board covered with photographs--there was also one by the entrance that I hadn't seen when I first walked in. The board by the casket was covered with photos of their wedding in the early 1950s. I didn't recognize the man whose hand I'd been holding, whose face was a foot from mine. "This is X?" I asked my wife. She said yes. But I recognized his wife; I could see her face in the young woman in her wedding dress smiling at the camera. I had always known her old; I'd never thought about her young. But here she was, here was all her life caught in the lens--her friends, relatives, her 50s hair do. Here were the young men in their baggy 50s suits, their mild pompadours, their shined shoes.
On the poster board by the exit she was younger, an unmarried girl in skirt and blouse, in her rolled, demure 50s woman's trousers, her neat, laced shoes. An entire poster board, the merest glance at a life, maybe 30 photos, but more than enough to recognize a life.
To my young neighbors I'm this older guy--they know nothing of the roads I've been on, the light I've seen, the dreams that drove me. I'm this...guy who has a snow blower who's happy to do their walkways after he's done his own, who builds things in his backyard. Maybe they know it's me when they hear, on a sunny day if it's not too cold, a table saw's coarse growl.
"Naught's clear, all's mystery," Yeats wrote. No. I don't think so. It's the other way. What's clear is the mystery.
The next day after my neighbor died begins in gold, fades to common light.
Much loss for one family; much to think about for everyone else. There are few things emptier than a house whose long-time resident is dead. Rooms have many stories, windows have tales to tell. The light still angles in onto the desk, but the eyes that loved that sight are gone. And, in time, all that's left for others is what's leached out--moments, the voice saying something it said for years, the way that body moved, the particulars that remain, but which will be refined by time down to the gold each needs.
It occurs to me that each of us is in a small boat on the ocean with a tiger--is the tiger life? Is it death? Are those words both sides of the same thing?
Another day begins in gold, then quickly fades. I see this isn't a tragic event. The point is its gorgeous brevity--
Just this moment the phone rang. A neighbor just told me that another neighbor, a sweet woman, a wife and mother, died yesterday. I had no idea--my neighbor, who is her friend--had no idea. Something happened, something about a "blockage." She'd gone to the hospital; she died. This took, perhaps, three days.
". . .gorgeous brevity" sounds hollow to me now--compared to a rock that smashes through glass. One thing to write two words to capture an idea that's important to you--quite, quite another to be told that someone you knew and liked just died.
I look across the lawn to her house. Inside is her husband. There 's only his car in the driveway. He's alone with her death. The service is tomorrow.
The lot between me and my neighbor is lit up and stamped with the black shadows of trees--sun brings out the other side everything has, the world's population doubles. because it's haunted. The world, like us, is inhabited--the shadow as fine a symbol for the past as one might wish, that thing, those years that happened that have left us changed, left us, us.
Want to know the real weather? Look at the profound and simple Tao: We are ourselves and other; others are themselves and us: we are utterly different and utterly linked, the halves of a whole. And what is true of us and others is true of our own selves: "I" am that which casts a shadow. "I" am that which carries the ages in my chemistry, whole histories, entire ecologies of time and place. The self can be a stranger to another and a stranger to itself. The peace we make between our selves determines the peace we might be able to make with others.
Yet in the day-to-day living of our lives, what seems more distant from truth than that? Every face in the mirror is different from any other face. No one's experience is the same. Yet the insight of the Tao, the Tao as a picture of what life really is, persists--call it the ideal; call it the inevitable shadow that we cannot take a step without; call it the shape our dream world takes when we awake. We catch glimpses of it, of our other self, so we only half-believe it. Only another can see it fully.
A step back today into winter-gray. Snow--and rain--are coming. Days of transition.
The stunned bushes look even more numb; the beaten grass is a narrative of patience. The trees, the stoic masters of the moment, are not surprised. The world, especially--intensely--in transitional moments seems even more clearly to be waiting.
We're the problem, having had enough of winter, of the day-after-day regime of cold, storm, being buried, digging out, watching the snow's retreat, the pristine turned into the ordinary, the hard-fisted remnants with their cold cores slowly disappearing--and all amid variations of gray. I feel my impatience with winter, the fatigue that, only here and there--and as I age, only very here and there--rushes to the surface, fingers grabbing for a root as the mind is swept away.
The real teacher, though, are these days of change, the see-saw between gray and sun, gold and gray, the world a waiting room whose worn magazines we're not interested in, whose 3rd rate reproductions of Paris street scenes and sun rises are on the verge of becoming insulting, whose chairs have been worn by bodies sour from worry and helplessness.
What rescues us is time--we know spring's coming because it always comes. It's not philosophy that saves us but experience. The world waits. We, too, must wait, must learn the old wisdom of the trees.
This morning, the light, again.
I sat and watched the gray until it turned to gold. The last two days are the closest I've come to living in vision since many, many years ago, in the 60s, when vision came cheap...still...three sublime moments remain from those hectic days, for they made me see and feel the world imperishably.
For the last two mornings the light has answered questions I didn't know that I was asking, questions that came to me once the doors of perception were thrown open all that time ago. The first time I managed to get to a typewriter and type these words: "It's like opening a door and hearing Dionysus scream."
I was not afraid. The second time I heard an oak leaf pinwheeling in the wind, each of its points scraping the pavement, the volume of the world turned up high. The final time I was on a blazingly hot South Jersey beach in August when I looked into a marigold and understood, with every fiber of my life, why it is one gives a flower to a guru. I don't mean to be opaque...or moony--in fact, a funny parody of the moment bubbles up to mind from the film version of A Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Universe. But...what happened did, in fact, occur.
Eternity in a grain of sand on the Jersey shore.
Many years ago.
The last two mornings...I'm sure it's because the winter has felt so long, the gray omnipresent, sight--and all that sight means--occluded; the last two mornings, when the gold was released and ignited the trees, have reopened the doors.
This morning when I sat down at the window, I knew that it was the moment before the gold. I've sat in that chair long enough to know. The sky was...just about to burst open--at least a slit in the east. I could feel the pressure building; the trees, as always, wait for whatever comes.
There was a slight change in tone; the air...shifted...the top branches, for a moment, slightly whitened, and then were on fire. But what was unique this morning is that the huge tree directly across from where I sit, which always stays dark, was also afire--shining tan gold against the still white-gray sky. The ballet, the architecture of its branches--some storm-broken--blazed, a city burning gold, each limb distinct, the labyrinth of its avenues and colonnades glowing.
I couldn't write. I wanted nothing more than what I was being given--and I was being given everything. Then I was given more. The sky became a deep, soft blue that's now lighter, airier, settling down for the rest of the day.
William Blake writes this:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I can't claim what he so confidently asserts. What I can claim is that I was given a gift.
Lovely, the timing. The second day of spring and its long shadows from a bright white sun. Getting rid of winter is always a step back, a step forward--the world making its final decision--until it goes all in, and every one of us knows when that happens, and dares to begin to unclench from winter, which never wants to leave, but, finally, must.
It's too easy to become so familiar with being alive that we lose the sense of how strange it is and how the seasons mirror our journey from birth to death, from spring to winter--from the dying of the flowers, the leaf-fall, of autumn, to the (what else to call it?) resurrection of green life when it inches its way up through hard ground, to poke its nose into the cold air. Yes, yes, a cliche. But aren't so many of what we call cliches diamonds we're so used to seeing that we think them merely stones? It usually takes a life to come to conclusions so obvious one smacks oneself in the head or, finally getting it, can only nod ruefully. Each life, I think, is a long journey home.