Friday, December 17, 2010

Denver 20.11.2001: Cathedrals and Statehouses

The sad little knick knacks purveyed by tourist shops.  They must be a vestige of the pilgrimage days, when you returned home with the palm in your hat, the city emblem nailed to your walking stick?

Writing in the basement of the Colorado state capitol, where we've taken refuge after having found the library closed.  Monumental architecture everywhere in Christian lands is such a fluid expression of the merging of throne and altar.  Take the cathedral, turn it 90◦ in the direction of neo-classicism, and voila! you have a state capitol.

Today's USA Today has a letter from a man in Nacogdoches, Texas, proposing that it be made constitutional that the U.S. president be required to be a military veteran.  Sure.  Why not go whole hog and become an outright military dictatorship?  One that bans contraception, requires women to stay at home, and jails homosexuals?  Let's become our enemy: let's become, world, a congeries of ugly macho nation-states staring each other down and trying to outdo the other in cruelty and steely resolve.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Salt Lake City 4.6.2000: Nameless Others and History

Salt Lake City: watching a t.v. film of the Lewis-Clark expedition last night.  Clark took along a slave, and it was him the Indians found exotic.  They gave him some honored name that I've forgotten.

This story told by an Indian, a descendant of the tribe who gave hospitality to the explorers.  It has remained vivid memory for them.

And that makes me think of when and what we remember, in history.  We recall the Lewises, the Clarks, but not the thousands of nameless laborers who made their memorable accomplishments possible.  My passion as an historian has always been to give those others faces, to make their voices speak.

I am an historian.  I am a theologian. I'm a writer.  Those words trip off the tongue.  I like the sound of them.  Are they true?  Is it possible to make them true?  My strategy: detach if I can, slow down, and relinquish expectations.  See what happens then.

Surrealistic conversations all around.  I listen shamelessly for . . . a clue?  It starts on the shuttle to the airport.  Three young women I first encountered in the hotel accompany us.  The one who fascinates me has a mask-like face, lips as if they've been permanently pushed apart, open, to reveal a gaping set of teeth, more snarl than smile.  She piles her things outside the elevator, a luggage cart occluding the button, so that I have to excuse myself to push it.  She doesn't acknowledge my apology, looks blankly angry that I've disturbed her.

In the shuttle, I realize there's simply nothing going on in the head behind the blank stare, the pouting full lips, the scary white teeth.  A mindless stream of chatter, about the "product" she and the other women sell.  They've been to a convention where they learn to sell "product" better.  Heather, that's my new color.  I plan to make all my demos heather--the "ea" pronounced like a short  "a," the "r" mercilessly extruded between the clenched white teeth: hatherrrrr!

Then in the airport a woman who could be Bimbo #1's double breaks in line ahead of us.  As we dutifully follow the snake formed by nylon loops, she skips a whole coil of the snake by opening the nylon barriers with supreme insouciance, as if the world entitles her to be at the head of the line.  Like Bimbo #1, she's in a blue denim shorts jumper with a white t-shirt beneath.  The woman she's with has bright red hair, apparently natural, a lime-green t-shirt, and eyes made exotic by a red line of eye shadow on the lower lids, badly applied.

And now in the waiting room, the man beside us casually dials his cell phone, speaking loudly to the air, "Mornin,'" for all the world as if he's in an acoustically isolated room, carrying on a monologue to which no one else is listening.  It's all about outfits his friends were wearing this morning, bright Hawaiian shirts.  As he ends the call, a man behind, talking to a child, says, "Yeah, I once had a Pepsi there," as though one remembers places visited by the soft drinks--the specific soft drinks--one once consumed within their limits.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ozarks 18.10.03: Crescent Moons and Moss-Clad Alders

At Kat's Rest, lying on cushions on the porch.  I definitely feel her spirit here, and want to have a formal dedication ceremony for the cabin.  As we drove on the road up to the creek, a sudden image of her in my mind, and the thought--as if I were in inner dialogue with someone who had just asked which of my aunts influenced me the most--that her spirit was so strong.  It's that that has influenced me.

I don't know precisely what I mean by strength of spirit.  I don't have it.  What she had was rare.  It wasn't fierceness, precisely, but a quiet determination that could be fierce if necessary.  Self-determination: she knew her mind, what she wanted and needed, and never wavered once her mind was fixed.  She was not selfish, though the partiality of her excuses for those to whom she was devoted could appear selfish.  But she herself never benefited from that lavishly bestowed loyalty.

Her convictions and determinations were hammered out in the depths of her soul, presumably.  I say presumably, because she kept her own counsel.  Pensive as a nun: no one was privy to what went on in those depths.  She was not garrulous, and had the dignity of a queen addressing commoners: just this much and no no more might be said; just this far and no further.

I am very unlike her.  I blab all.  My soul struggles are spangled across the front pages of the paper, as with my grandmother.  Never a secret anguish, never an unaccentuated sigh (and the watching eye to see how my drama affects my audience).

Kat loved nature because she knew how to be: silent, impassive, patient, soaking it all in without appearing avid or rushed.  She would have liked this place.  She would not have admitted it.  She would be very happy we could obtain it by her gift to us.  

And here's what I see as we arrive and settle in: deep blue sky.  A crescent moon is high in the west, though it's just past noon.  From where I lie, I see the green pine-clad western slope, the brown and yellow oaks to the north swaying in the slight breeze, the mahogany red dogwood with its enameled red berries on the south side of the creek.  The wind chimes tinkle a haunting, faint tune.

In the shade on the north bank of the stream is the alder close to the porch, now bare of leaves.  Its black and silver limbs are an intricate tracery, the moss on its trunk a beautiful thing, but an ominous indicator of the tree's soon demise, and an explanation of its unhealthiness.

Klinkenborg, Rural Life: "In April what you see are our own intentions.  In October you see their unexpected wreck and fulfillment" (p. 171).  And: "A garden is so full of cheap sermons" (p. 172).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ozarks 27.9.03: Beggars' Lice and Crisp White Wine

Aster vying with goldenrod to be the prettiest flower of the glads; hickory nuts falling with huge whomps on the tin roof; squirrels scampering after such nuts; evening light making sumac a red hardly to be believed; daddy long-legs capering in advance of the cold snap; beggars' lice hitching rides on any inch of clothing they can grab; wind chime slowly singing in the west wind; mushrooms gold, red, brown, some spotted with green and one a yellow filament affair like a sponge or an American form of shiitake.  

As the day goes on, more of the front comes through, making the late-afternoon air and sunlight that wine air and sun of autumn.  And we're toasting it with glasses of white wine, crisp and gold in the afternoon sun.  Why white when it's green gold embodied?  And to think that the grapes that yield this glass of sunlight caught grew along the Mosel in Germany and their wine's being drunk in the Ozarks in Arkansas.

I eschew time, here.  It could be 4.  It could be 5.  Who cares?  If I tip my head down to watch Brassie, her nose just off the porch as she surveys the creek, I catch the sun beneath the porch roof, just in eyes and face.  Not the sun of summer--a friend, not foe.  I can feel in my bones how welcome its warmth and light will be come winter.

And just now, I see its angle will catch the northern slopes before it dips any lower, bring evening to our tiny valley long before day ends on higher ground.  The north side of the creek is suddenly in shade, one triangular rock on the south side of the waterfall pool gloriously illuminated, every pock in its face cast in brightness and chiaroscuro, its lichen like something intricately carved by a master craftsman.

Brassie, unusually self-assertive, is at the pool drinking and dabbling, now rolling luxuriously ion her back.  I hope the thick grass and cool ground heal the itch that seems these days to trouble her.

Thoreau, Walden:

We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.  I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else I knew as well.  Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.  Moreover, I on my side require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.

Rafferty's The Ozarks says that summer nights are notable for the cool air that streams down hillsides an hour or so before sunset.   I've seen this just now.  Looking up, I could see the few wispy clouds motionless, but the trees atop the south hill began to sway noticeably in a wind I began to feel on my face, as I watched the setting sun illuminate that hillside.  Fall yes, but late summer still, judging by the wind.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ozarks 14.9.03: Gilded Pines and Dragons in the Deeps

Sun comes late in the morning to our little valley.  It's like being in the bottom of a bowl, or underwater, and seeing light touch the top before it slowly creeps into the depths.

As I've been sitting, it has finally illuminated the little opening--a very tiny meadow, mostly water--through which the creek flows to empty into the waterfalls.  On the south side of the cabin near the east corner, I look up to see if I can catch sight of a bird high in the sunny trees, chortling repetitively.  I see a pine whose top is beautifully gilded, and a dead tree whose trunk now looks like an uplifted horse's head, watching the cabin.  It's like being at the bottom of an ocean, with the complex rich life of down there, and looking up startled to discover there's an equally complex rich up there, going on independent of down here.

I now realize why it always seems there are so few birds here.  The waterfall and creek are so loud, you hear only the most vocal birds.  And with trees so thick and the darkness well after dawn, it's hard to spot them at the time of day birds normally call loudest.

Gorgeous light.  What would one do without it?  I think this as it just catches, glances off, the gilded blotches of the picture on the front of the volume of Rumi's poems beside me.  I've just read there:

Dear heart, you are so unreasonable!  First you fall in love then worry about your life.  You rob and steal then worry about the law.

You profess to be in love yet still worry about what people say.

Every morning we pray, "In his hands are the depths of the earth, and the tops of the mountains are his."  The down below and up above connect (re-ligion, tie back, etymologically) because of God.  They co-exist.  One cannot live without the other.

The beautiful jewel-green patches of moss scattered on the rock at my feet would not be jewel-green without the light from above.  And the light would have no reason to be, if it did not illuminate what's down here.

The hummingbird I saw last week, which zoomed up to a flower in front of me as I sat creekside, won't be here much longer, and may well be gone.  Gusts of north wind at my back, sending yellow leaves from the mossy failing alder at water's edge spiraling into the stream, spent for the year and ready to rise again as humus downstream.  The dogwood on the south bank has red berries, a fall temptation to the cardinals.  The wind catches and snatches out of my open journal Rumi's poem re: seeking the wisdom that unties one's knot.  Steve, sweet violet of a friend, retrieves it for me.

I just told myself to shut up and stop writing, but how can I not record these lines from the psalm to which I just happened to open:

Praise ye the Lord.  Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise him in the heights.  Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps (Psalm 148: 1,7).

Dragons?  Really?  King James can be so fanciful.  But liturgy is play, foolish, thrown-to-the-wind actions that have no place in the life we love to call "real."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ozarks 13.9.03: Pilgrim Mothers and Dryasdust Shells of Reality

Mary Oliver, Winter Hours (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999):

This is called happiness.  This is called: stay away from me with your inches, and your savings accounts, and your plums in a jar.  Your definitive anything.  And if life is so various, so shifting, what could we possibly say of death, that black leaf, that has in it any believable finality? (p. 78).

When I read Mary Oliver, I want to stop writing.  How can any word of mine say it so precisely, so gracefully?  Or, better yet, stop writing and reading, and simply look.  But with her eyes--and there's the trick: not just eyes, but heart.

There's that New England tradition of the passionate engaged hermit, the one who will go her own obdurate way, and see what others don't--Dickinson, Thoreau.  It's an inherited refractory mystical strain, the Pilgrim mothers straining on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of New Jerusalem on the rocky coast of these new shores.  Emerson--sweetest Emerson, Oliver calls him--has it, too.

It's a Platonism woven into the fabric of Anglicanism, a spiritual path of seeing what's inside it all--to change senses, of sucking sweet nectar from the dryasdust shell of reality.  And that requires--that passionate eremitical enterprise--a social commitment, oddly enough. A political commitment: the willingness to live at peace with obdurate others as unwervingly set as seeing it their way as one is oneself.

The two arms of Anglicanism at its best, perplexing to many outsiders: passionate mystical engagement with life in its ordinariness; and passionate sociopolitical engagement founded on an instinct for welcoming (or at least bearing with) the other.  Thoreau exemplifies it, and is thus the Enigma to many interpreters.

We in the South have no such tradition.  I am not sure why.  I read Mary Oliver (and Thoreau, and Dickinson) to catch a glimpse of a way to cranny my own neck towards Jerusalem.  But how to do that effectively, short of selling all and heading to nethermost Maine?

Or is this my Maine, these 80 acres?  A breeze nudges my neck from downstream as I ask this, the soft wet wind from south and east, furry like a cat's tongue cleaning my earlobes.  I spent much of my young life looking for such a refuge, and now I have it, gratis (due to the grace of) Kat.  Kat was, in her own way, a mystic-hermit with a heart passionately engaged in the lives of those around her.

I keep asking about vocation--my vocation--expecting the bolt of lightning to strike.  But perhaps it did many years ago, and now I'm in the midst of it, where there are no more flashes, just dogged fidelity.  Perhaps this hermitage comes just as I need it.

And I can never be here--watch here; write here--without thinking of my great-grandfather's uncle Wilson Bachelor and ow he, too, watched and wrote.  He manged to carry on that looking for Jerusalem tradition on the western frontier of Arkansas.

This place immerses you in it, because it's a bowl through which a stream roars after rain such as we had yesterday.  The roar of the water drowns hearing.  And as I age, I'm less and less able to smell.  I'd better use what sight I still have, while I have it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ozarks 12.9.03: Glistening Gold Stubble and Unbroken Circles

Mary Oliver, Winter Hours (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999):

Anxiety for the lamb with his bitter future, anxiety for my own body, and, not least, anxiety for my own soul.  You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.  That worrier (p. 14).

Describing Arkansas.  This day.  This unrepeatable moment.  It matters that summer lingers.  It's not beside the point that  fall is nudging summer aside.

The surprise, just north of the city, of blue misted mountains--no, never blue: green, and yellow in the linering summer--folded around the river, so that one rises out of urban expectations and dips down, totally unexpectedly, not the bowl of mountains, the wide twisting fields of the river.

Up and over the north ridge of mountains, the surprise, too, of the lovely little valley always planted to rice in recent years.  On this misty morning, the gold stubble glistens with droplets that can't be seen individually from the car, but that give a sheen to the whole field.  Through it all, twisting and snaking, the green veins that form the paddies, glowing so bright, so green, in the mist.

From there, the surprise of the lake, cypress trees keeping sentry, water lilies claiming its surface, slightly ruffled on this morning by the new fall winds.  Green gives way to brown as the water nears the shore.

For me, a lake fraught with history, since my father brought me to fish there.  Pictures of a tiny, earnest me in a cap with ear flaps, holding a pole as long as a small tree out from shore, expecting fish to find their way to my hook.

These thoughts as the second anniversary of my mother's death nears.  It would have been show who bundled me in the warm cap and jacket, against March winds.  She did try.

On the drive up, a memorial radio essay re: Johnnie Cash.  They play the selection of him singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" that mentions the time-honored trope of seeing the hearse carry your mother away.  I break into tears.  More pain as I listen, in the cabin, to Chanticleer singing "We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace."  I chose this song to be played at my mother's funeral, as people entered the chapel.  Patrick, about whom I dreamt last night, said after the funeral, "That's a song I'll never hear again without feeling sad."

And the rain drives down from the skies.  And the water pours, pours, over the lip of the precipice in a thick white torrent stained with an ugly tobacco yellow.  I've seen too many loved ones die.  I wonder if I grow incapable of remembering and mourning.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2003):

The way to look at it all was to accept its passing.  To see something interesting you had to be looking right at it as it flew by.  If you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t see it, no matter how quickly you turned your head of how hard you looked back down the road.  There was no entanglement with the scenery (p. 73).

I implore the angels and saints: pray that I have a more grateful heart.  Pray that I live with time I have left with more awareness of the gift of my life. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Little Rock 15.2.2005: Smudge of Dawn, Magic in the Everyday

As I watched the dawn today--that first, indeterminate maybe-you're-imagining-it smudge of light across the eastern horizon, I thought: no one will ever be able to take this experience from me.  It's now inside me, a snapshot enshrined in my heart.  It's mine.  The dawn has become Bill.  Morning becomes a human heart.  That old corny verse of Sara Teasdale about slipping a coin into the heart's treasury turns out to be true: time cannot take nor a thief purloin the safe-kept memory of a lovely thing.

And as I write this, I look up to see under the skylight a little sepia postcard of Charles Bridge I bought in Prague, on the bridge.  It was a glorious summer morning before the throngs of (other) tourists were there, the city mystical from the water. 

The postcard is framed in a square metal frame.  Normally, the surface of the metal is flat, uninteresting.  Today, some trick of light throws it into flame.  It turns out to have a circle embedded in it, a perfectly round set of concentric ridges now turned silver-yellow in the light.  Such magic in the everyday, all too often hidden from us.  Soon the flame will recede to normalcy and become plebian tin.