Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008


we bundle ourselves into the car around 7am and drive through the rainy, cold fog to the high school and then back across town to daycare. After I dropped off s., I grab my rain gear and head out into the freezing rain to walk before yoga class. I meet up with d., and launch into my whole oft-rehearsed diatribe of late about what happens when the person you have always thought that you were starts to crack like an old photo, when you start to realize that who you thought was yourself was nothing more that an impeccably maintained (or so you thought) image in your mind, that is now disintegrating before your eyes.

Are you forty-two?
d. asks. That's when it begins. It'll get better.

And then we walk back to her house and I wave good-bye and march off in the direction to the window-filled stone building on top of the hill, nestled among the trees on the golf course (which lovely, unpopulated square mile of wild nature urges me to thank God for golfers every time I go there--development might have long ago consumed it otherwise!) where yoga class meets, and I am late, and tromp in with my bags of clothing and books and thermos of green tea.

i hate neck relaxation exercises anyway, and I'm glad I've missed most of it. I used to feel that way about pigeon pose, but have come to love that one so much that I don't want to get out of it and into the spinal twist. I am always surprised at how the chatter in my mind always seems to increase as a function of the quiet of the room.

Breathe, the teacher says, and he means it, his voice says it and fills the room with the involuntary impulse to yawn.

By 11:45 I am at Starbucks on campus. The mind chatter says, Why are you willing to stand in this infernally long line, it's like Starbucks is a religion, should I get a latte or an Americano, etc. The length of the line had kept me outside the glass doors, but once I have moved (and rapidly!--I am always sure they will miss or screw up my order with the volume of traffic, but they are so damnably efficient) I hear the the heartwrenchingly familiar guitar picking of James Taylor, sweetened with time and LIVE, and I am suddenly transported back to my twenties in New York. I see that young woman no less clearly than I see myself now and I am gripped by an aching yearning to go to her, to tell her to stop everything because she has no idea who she is or what she is capable of, or how long it will take to unravel all the knots she is hastily tying.

But the latte comes, and I can't stand in there forever, and the song changes to some young, hip songwriting chanteuse and am poured back out into the cold, into the present. The past evaporates like a mist. I count the days since I posted my letter to a. (although I know he will not write back), and wish that I could go back, far back, and find him before we became whoever we would, unknowingly, become.

Monday, January 21, 2008

the view from my bed

artifact--1821 (artefact) "anything made by human art," from It. artefatto, from L. arte "by skill" (ablative of ars "art;" see art (n.)) + factum "thing made," from facere "to make, do" (see factitious). Archaeological application dates from 1890.

There was a time when archaeology, as a discipline devoted to silent monuments, inert traces, objects without context, and things left by the past, aspired to the condition of the historical discourse; it might be said, to play on words a little, that in our time history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument. --Michel Foucault

1. Last night I dreamed about A. We were in some sort of abandoned ghost town, possibly an old steamship. We were beholding the dust-covered relics. I hoped we could produce some sort of illumination from these artifacts, some narrative that would explain what had happened in this place, what had gone wrong. He was patient with my lack of understanding, for after all, how could things be any other than they were at that moment, every surface blanketed in fine haze of decay--there was nothing to find or discover, it simply did not exist in any other way. I saw the absurdity of my longing to reconstitute history.

I awake vaguely aware of the dream, that I dreamed about A. I slowly reconstitute the dream, write a brief letter to A. and do not mail it.

2. She was sitting in the seat next to me in the car. It was cold and her hands were dangerously numb. A vague light from the broken streetlight just cautiously illuminated her profile (she looked beautiful--I am not sure what specifically to attribute this to, but there was a resolved gracefulness in the lines of her face and the way her usually animated limbs fell together in an unfamiliar and quiet repose, as if the limbs and trunk and head suddenly felt comfortable together, and enjoyed one another’s company). She said, I was in the place and I knew no one and didn’t understand the language or the culture, and I just woke every day and prayed that God would guide me because I could depend on nothing else.

Maybe that it how it really always is, I said. And maybe it is. What she really missed, though, was hot water. There was never any hot water.

3. It rains and rains today. Standing in the shower I wonder why all this water does not just erode us little by little, why, if I stand beneath the hot water forever, does nothing ever get dissolved of the knots of thought and flesh.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

rendered unto ash

this image [was originally] a portrait of two friends, taken by colleen, and it has set me thinking lately about friendship, and redemption, which are not usually coterminous, although it seems they should be. the light on the day this photo was taken was sifting through the weight of the room--the curtains, our winter clothing, the red wine, the dust (although there seemed to be very little of that, how do we see the light in such streams withough particulate--is it dust and light after all that touches us so?) all seemed to pull the light down making it more visible, more palpable. My thought on this day and days afterward was, some things cannot be salvaged, or rather, some things will never be restored to their original state, and this is the way life is. I carry the fragments of these damaged vessels, but I am no longer sure what I hope to do with them--perhaps they are just touchstones for the past, mementos.

the world is and we are continuously created and fractured and recreated through the accretion of countless corpuscles of matter and light and laughter and sorrow, and we change and change and change like rivers which wander imperceptibly over a landscape and yet always look the same, seem the same. One cannot, as Heraclitus claimed, step in the same river twice.

but what about redemption. Are we ever redeemed by one another, or is this the sole provenance of God? there are those from whom I deeply long for forgiveness, and yet this longing itself becomes an accretion of sorts, a settlement of sorts. this is the dust we become.

He felt closer to the dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. --WG Sebald, The Emigrants

Sunday, January 13, 2008

poetry and theology

recently I was opining on what sort of person is Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead), and here are two intervew questions (and responses) excerpted from a longer interview, which can be found here.

Q: John Ames, the Congregational minister in the book, is a very theological thinker, and you have mentioned your own interest in theology. If you had to explain it to someone, what is theology and what does it mean to think theologically?

A: It's a difficult thing to describe theology, what it means and how it disciplines thinking. Certainly, theology is the level at which the highest inquiry into meaning and ethics and beauty coincides with the largest-scale imagination of the nature of reality itself. Often, when I want to read something that is satisfying to me as theology, what I actually read is string theory, or something like that -- popularizations, inevitably, of scientific cosmologies -- because their description of the scale of things and the intrinsic, astonishing character of reality coincides very beautifully with the most ambitious theology. It is thinking at that scale, and it is thinking that is invested with meaning in a humanly evocative form. That's theology.

Q: Is there a connection to poetry, too? John Ames is also steeped in the religious poets, and he mentions John Donne and George Herbert throughout the novel.

A: I think the connection between poetry and theology, which is profound in Western tradition -- there is a great deal of wonderful religious poetry -- both poetry and theology push conventional definitions and explore perceptions that might be ignored or passed off as conventional, but when they are pressed yield much larger meanings, seem to be part of a much larger system of reality. The assumption behind any theology that I've ever been familiar with is that there is a profound beauty in being, simply in itself. Poetry, at least traditionally, has been an educing of the beauty of language, the beauty of experience, the beauty of the working of the mind, and so on. The pastor does, indeed, appreciate it. One of the things that is nice about these old pastors -- they were young at the time -- who went into the Middle West is that they were real humanists. They were often linguists, for example, and the schools that they established were then, as they are now, real liberal arts colleges where people studied the humanities in a very broad sense. I think that should be reflected in his mind; appropriately, it is.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

footnote to civilization

I know that civilization is simply something that seems important, something that lives in the mind along with infinite desires and stories that are no less sensible that the small stone between my fingers.

I am at first affrighted and confounded with that forelorn solitude in which I am placed with my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster who, not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been left...utterly abandoned and disconsolate. Fain would I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth; but I cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart; but no one will hearken to me.

Most fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimaeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends, and when after three or four hours'amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any further. Here I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and act, and talk like other people in common affairs of life.
--David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature

Thursday, January 10, 2008

hiding behind the lens

I was reflecting on what I wrote about my grandfather in the lost ritual, that he used a camera and a highball as a foil. Lately I begin to understand this tendency in myself. I wear my glasses more often, not because I can see more clearly, but because they make the world around me more blurry. I seek refuge in the fact that everything beyond reading distance is an indistinct fuzzy mass, which further corroborates my possible misguided notion that reality is no more than a fog anyway, until you kick the tire, that is (an old philosophical riff). But the ghost, the voyeur, the observer--this was Benjamin, and Rilke, and even (I have heard) Marilynne Robinson--a veil of words is no less a lens to hide behind than a Zeiss Ikonoflex, after all.

I recall many years ago when I was living with my mother on a reservation in Eastern Montana. The day we arrived she fell ill with a sever kidney infection, and I was left alone to fend for myself among the town of Lodge Grass. I went to the store, to the gas station, wandered at will. What I noticed most pointedly was that no one spoke--or rather, spoke very little. It was uncommon to shoot the breeze. Communication was brief and purposeful. This took much getting used to. I was a philosophy major then and monologues and dialogues flowed through my brain like the rivers that cut through and flooded the very verdant valley of the Crow. One old man did saunter out to me one day, at the gas station, and nodded toward my Guatemalan wallet perched on top the gas pump. “That your medicine bag?” he asked.

But I had brought a camera. I began wandering afresh, looking at the landscape and the junk cars and old refrigerators piled up with teepee poles in overgrown meadows. The kids began to follow me, and I took many pictures of them. The words were tamed, I guess, by the images, and the camera gave me an identity among the townspeople that I had previously lacked. I became “the photographer.” I took so many pictures back then I almost thought I was one. Most gratifyingly, though, was the feeling that I ceased to exist behind the camera, that I could go almost anywhere without being noticed--the ultimate refuge behind the lens.

I imagine my grandfather seeking this same refuge. Fuzzy world beyond the glasses, vague, amorphous world beyond the bottle of bourbon, but a clear, quiet world behind the viewfinder. People rarely bother a man behind a camera.

Monday, January 7, 2008


In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable…We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likenesses, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, utterly vast spaces between us.
-- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

And so the magic of winter slowly fades. The time away from work and school has allowed me to wander far from the steady stream of comings and goings of human life, the urgent and not-so-urgent errands and routines which drive the species to and fro in little inscribed paths on the surface of the city. I have slowed down to an almost imperceptible breath. I could be dead, for all I know, or a ghost. But the house is populated by two children and two animals who seem to respond to my presence. I must still be among the living.

Today on the creek we are alone, and the dry leaves are flicking like sharp, tiny tongues across the surface of the whitening rocks. There is a strong smell of dead fish. I find a stone and remember a friend who used to place a pebble in his mouth to stave off thirst on long hikes, but I can’t remember who it is anymore, who among the parade of ghosts who vigorously people my memories and dreams--and I am not putting this pebble in my mouth. It has absorbed the smell of dead fish, so I rub it between my fingers as we walk, like a worry bead.

We come across a smooth, deep rivulet, from whence arises the odor of dead fish. It is cut deep into the chalky surface, and as we peer down we see hundreds of small silver fish gasping for air among the carcasses of the already dead. I look up at the sky. It is cloudy, but rain seems unlikely. I consider the farfetched idea of buckets of water hauled down from up top.

As we walk back home I pray for rain. Several times during the day I do, weighing the likelihood of an answered prayer for dying fish against the grave, urgent prayers mouthed by the suffering the world over. But in this place that I am, this remote, unpeopled quiet of the winter holidays, I know that civilization is simply something that seems important, something that lives in the mind along with infinite desires and stories that are no less sensible that the small stone between my fingers.(1)

The clouds dissipate at dusk. My prayers fell on fallow soil, or I didn’t pray sincerely enough, or there is nothing such as an answered prayer. I let all the possible worlds of this play in my mind as the first stars appear, knowing that what is sanity, what to me, is civilization, is that smooth cleft in the earth where the tragedy plays out without tears or prayers. Tomorrow I will immerse myself once again in the river of humanity, and I wonder if I will even remember that fragile, passing world.

p.s. Hours after writing this, I awoke around midnight to a light but persistent rain...

Thursday, January 3, 2008


the fragments that began “redemption shoes” were perhaps never to become more than a chaotic collection of thought objects--in any case, I doubt the collection will ever be reconciled into a meaningful whole, the way a story or a novel would, which in many ways was my intention--to experiment with a formless collection of ideas. But the idea of a codex devoid of a telos runs counter to my fundamental grain. I think I have always believed that if we looked far enough and deep enough, one day the mystery would be resolved. The mystery of what? Of self, of human nature? I cannot know, but remain resolved in my belief in a unified theory of everything, an Answer. I think this is why we tell stories at all: we craft the inklings of our vestigial knowledge into sensical or quasi-sensical forms, if only to communicate to ourselves what we already know. It was that spirit that fired the passion of Schliemann, whether one believes or not that his discoveries were nothing more than a hoax, the principal remains to intrigue us with its beauty and simplicity--that all we need to know, all we can ever know, is perpetually recorded in the cryptology of story. I will not quit searching, although the fragments of the grandfather have faded.