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.

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