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...