Mumford & Sons, The Cave
It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind
The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat
But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond reach of the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope.
- Albert Einstein
And just like that, everything changes. In a moment. In a word. You see the things that matter, the things that don’t. And you wonder how you ever mistook one for the other.
Life’s like that sometimes. It gets us in our secret place. Where we go to hide from the world – and from ourselves.
Death isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It just…IS.
But the coffee machine’s still dripping on the counter. And there’s still sweeping to be done of the floor. Life goes on that way. Just a little calmer. A little quieter.
For a time.
We sit in silence.
I never just breathe. I spend most of my time doing the opposite – holding my breath until it comes out so fast and furious it makes me dizzy. But today, outside the airport, I took a moment to do it…to just breathe. I didn’t worry about the sun on my face or the time on my wrist or any of the things that have been making me feel like not-me these last few months.
In front of me a man stood by a car and told a woman he loved her. They hugged. I moved my eyes, because that’s what I do. Public displays of affection make me uncomfortable. But the eye moving didn’t help. In front of their car was another. Another someone else, dropping off their someone, too. An elderly man, leaving his teenage grandson. The younger man said “I love you”, the older “I’ll miss you, boy.” They didn’t shake hands. They hugged.
I stood there for half an hour. Just watching. Watching people be good to other people. Wondering if they ever took the time, like I never had, to look behind them or in front of them in that long crazy line where everyone just hugged and loved and smiled even when they cried.
It was a beautiful thing. Seeing all those perfect, tiny moments lined up like that affected me in a profound way. Two years of tension just left my body. No kind of yoga ever did that.
If you feel like feeling good about people, and what it means to be one of them, go to an airport. Stand at curb-side drop off. And spend some time watching. Then go back to your car and remember how you used to love Toby Keith and how you’re gonna start loving him some more. Because he’s still as good as he ever was.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window is a victim of accidie, or maybe an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes a difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, in the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of choices. We live by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting shadows which are our actual experience.
Didion. But not exactly.
At midnight I was angry. Running in the rain. Shouting. To Flynn. She said perfect things, which I can’t remember. Because I do that when I shout; or when things are said in the rain. I forget. But she’ll say them again. Because that’s what I’ll need. And that’s what she does. Like Didion.
I used to spend my lunch hour in Manchester’s town hall. I’d stand in front of a mural by Ford Madox Brown, eat potato chips, and wonder about the time and people who had passed by the painting since it first found its home upon the wall.
Art and architecture and celestial mechanics always make me wonder like this. And Brown’s mural, “Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus A.D. 1639”, buried in that Gothic building, is a little bit of all three.
We know so much, or think we do, that the astronomy behind today’s transit isn’t new or interesting anymore. But there’s a lot of deep-seated comfort in the solid, steady cycle that’s the orbit of planets and stars. In the knowledge that natural things always have their time and place even if our own trajectories are so bent and misshapen we hardly recognize them.
I get all caught up in it sometimes, and in that Mary Oliver poem, about the geese, which I don’t really like, but which comes to mind all the same.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
And the sun moves across the landscape.
Celie lived with her six children in a tumbled down company house beside the railroad. Coal dust covered everything within a mile of the track but no dust ever covered Celie. She dressed her family like she dressed herself – in white – and was known for starching and ironing every piece of linen she owned until a line couldn’t stand up straight in it. Women called her wanton, though none were ever willing or able to provide details in support of the accusation. Men called her stout as a bear – she was the only woman in the county to work the mines. Everyone called her Big and said she laughed too much to have any real fear of God or the Devil, though opinion was divided as to whether this was virtue or vice.
Celie was the only person in three states who dared to call Effie Payne by her given name. All because Effie once hinted she had heard that Celie, in her younger years, before she was known as Big, had been one for the bottle. Two days later Celie showed up on Effie’s doorstep.
“I’ll tell you but once, Sister. I don’t take with no liquor. Never have. Never will. And I sure don’t take with people who says I do.”
Effie could still remember the way Celie’s forehead throbbed when she spoke, the way her fists clenched at her side.
“You make sure you understand me real good, EF-FIE,” Celie said the name like it was a swear. “I’d hate to have to come back here and repeat myself.”
Afterwards, Effie tried to have Celie thrown out of the church. The pastor said people had tried before. But when it came to getting done, no one ever showed up to do it.
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people. – Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Alone at night, when I was twelve years old, I looked at the planet Mars and I said, ‘Take me home!’ And the planet Mars took me home, and I never came back. So I’ve written every day in the last 75 years. I’ve never stopped writing. – Ray Bradbury
I’ve been reading a lot of screen plays lately. They’re good stand-ins for poetry. But only when they’re done the way they ought to be done. The Royal Tenenbaums, Lars and the Real Girl. I read these every year. They make me happy. I have in my hand a poem my grandmother wrote the day she turned my age. Disbelieving the birthday that I’ve now passed, the one Jane Smiley called the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later. She was so young my grandmother, when she was my age. Ray Bradbury is not young. He is awesome. Listen…
This isn’t a post about Downton Abbey. But it is a post about Wilfred Owen, and he seems to be popping up a lot lately because of Downton. Media Bistro recently published a “Downton Abbey Reading List” and The New York Times even did a piece about Downton and how publishers were using America’s interest in it to promote historical fiction and biographies of the First World War. Both mentioned Owen-Wilfred Owen-a British soldier and poet who wrote, with horrific imagery, about the horrors of war.
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face…
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
*Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from Horace’s Odes. Roughly translated: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Wilfred Owen was killed in battle one week before the war ended. He was twenty-five years old.
You can see the original manuscript, and other works, at the University of Oxford’s Great War Digital Archive.