Saturday, February 23, 2008

prayer trees

I want to think about trees. Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can't think about them. I live with the trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air...They abide. --Annie Dillard

Thursday, February 21, 2008

tallgrass prairie

Today a pleasant breakfast with a friend. We are speaking of Andrew Wyeth and he asks me where I am from, and suddenly the entirity of that landscape fills me. I can hear and smell the wind, and want to be there badly, urgently. Life is dense here, and the mind grows heavy with so much complexity. Things are (have always been) so much simpler there, and crueler. Last time I visited my grandmother I stood out behind her house and looked out over the expanse of cottonfields. The wind whipped an anguished sound from a farmhouse a half a mile or so away. Probably a pig slaughter, though I couldn't be sure. The cruelties are dealt out in equal measure with the vast spaces, the way you cut cold butter into flour to make biscuits.

(excerpt from The Penetrable Air)
As she made her way along the furrows, big clods of dirt broke under the soles of her sneakers. Finally she reached the spot where a rusty old thresher lay beside an irrigation ditch that bubbled like a spring. There was a stock tank, and bull rushes grew all around it. Here she was shielded from view, hidden in the tall grass with the crickets and frogs and bull snakes. And she listened. She just sat still and listened to the wind, trying to identify the call of a kingbird, or meadowlark, or a prairie hawk. If she sat there long enough, the whistling breeze in her ears would begin to seem like syllables of the language of clouds, and the spaces between her own cells and the sun and the sky and the wind would disappear, until all that remained was an awareness of vast space stretching out in all directions, occasionally interrupted by a lizard or nuthatch, lighting upon her.

Sometimes she imagined that she heard her mother's voice singing songs in a language she couldn't quite understand, but she knew that the song was about how time wraps itself around and bores into things, around hearts and tongues, and children. And how, if you open your mouth you can trade your own voice for the wind, until your tongue dries out and sand fills your eyesockets and you are blind.

After a while of sitting in that wide field, singing into the wind until her voice was hoarse, the harmonic of their dual howling would begin to sound like a train tunneling through her chest, into her heart, cracking her open and splitting her wide like a watermelon. The whole sky would swoosh in and fill her, stretch her wider and wider like a balloon until her cells were diluted by air and she would rise on a current of her own sound, and the sky would become a little speck inside of her.

Hours would pass. The sun would travel across the sky, scorching her skin and the field and all creation beneath its mean heat. And the clouds would flap out in the high winds like laundry, then disappear like all the things she loved most. She thinks about her horse and the last time she had seen him being loaded up in a trailer headed for some unknown and probably tragic destination. It was her fault if he had been led in terror through the concrete canals of the slaughterhouse. And her mother and Billy, whose blood was also on her hands. Lizzie looked up at the wide sky. The geese will soon begin to gather into their ragged Vs and fly north. Would they even want her if she suddenly sprouted wings? Would anyone, ever?

The crickets started chirping then, just as the sun dipped into the mirage of water at the edge of the field. Lizzie gathered herself back into what she thought was a human presence, though she was becoming less and less sure that she was human at all. She walked slowly back toward Mama Whitlow’s house. There was a combine in the far field in a cloud of dust. Swallows were swirling in arcs around the insects it churned in its path. Lizzie could see Mama Whitlow out in the garden with a dishtowel slung over her shoulder, picking tomatoes. She walked toward this one image, of a woman she knew but did not love, involved in an activity both mindful and meaningless, and knowing that she was walking toward the one fragile understanding of what it meant to live among men. Everything Lizzie understood was in this field, or in a house miles away that had long been shut away in darkness like a dream.

As she recognized the absurdity of her life, how she belonged nowhere, she began to leap the furrows in clownish steps, trying not to step on the peaks, bounding across the lumpy, dry field. It seemed like she leaped higher and higher, as if she weighed nothing—like she was walking on the moon that had just begun to rise over the summer corn. She felt the strange sensation of blood exiting her body in little gasps, and imagined that if the red drops fell into the field, a tree might grow there, and she would guard the sapling growth from all tractors, all men, until it was tall enough for her to climb into the sky and fly away.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

invisible wor[l]ds in the glass

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

-from The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver

I came home early today. The achy augurs of a virus or the flu gave cause to take the afternoon and rest. I boarded the No. 3 west of campus and it was afire with its singular cross-section of humanity--every range of income and disability--including the older woman with Down’s syndrome whom I would really like to get to know some day--she seems so affable and reminds me of my great aunt. She scrunches her face and re-arranges her large glasses, and will lean far out in to the aisle to get a better look at someone. Today it was me, sitting in the very back of the bus, thinking of her, but not looking, and she contorted her small frame until she struck an almost impossible angle over the aisle to adjust and readjust at me, her eyes growing alternately huge and normal with each nudge of the frames.

Across from her sat an enormous African-American man in his mid-twenties, who I have often seen on the bus. He usually has headphones on and gesticulates wildly, I have assumed, to the music. Once I sat in a row in front and to the right of his seat where he flung his long arms with such force and vigor that my hair was repeatedly tossed in the wind of his motion. It was an odd tenderness of restraint. He could have knocked my head right off the shoulders with so much force, but he came just so close, and I relaxed and wondered at what whirled in his wild mind, and felt sad that I would never know.

Then there was the man in the wheel chair. He was a middle-aged Latino and every once in a while lifted his black-gloved hand with the fingers cut off to trace letters and invisible words on the glass and ghostlike geometric shapes. What wacky, private worlds we are all confined within. It would be in authentic to say I love humanity, because at times, maybe most times, I sorely resent it. But it would be dishonest to deny that sometimes my heart surges with inexpressible love for my certain fellow humans. Inexpressible is problematic--there is no reason why I could not express what I feel, or do something that would offer some solace or comfort. Rather, and I don’t know why, I hold them close, the way you would a fragile, powdery moth.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

salt and light ii

sunday february 16th, almost spring

Every story is, according to Michel de Certeau, a travel story, a spatial practice. Narrative structures, such as our li[ves] are spatial structures. Their network contains the vertiginous epoch of space: ‘we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.’
--Exhibit Program, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: Spatial Emotion in Contemporary Art and Architecture

After posting D.’s The Rapture the other day (and viewing her other images of that scene, some which even more eerily evoked a sense of just such a thing having happened) I felt strangely disconcerted all day. Perhaps it was intense prayer that shed some light--not prayer in the mantric way we are taught as children, but the mumbled urgent outpouring into the unknown, toward the unknown, perhaps impossibly bent ear, perhaps toward a gaping void. But that relief should visit us after such an outpouring--is that evidence enough of Existence? I don’t know.

I have often considered whether some unsuspecting web surfers might happen upon the title of this blog and immediately dismiss it as some conservative Christian diabtribe on hellfire and brimstone--redemption is such a powerful word, and carries such heavy baggage. For me it has always carried more literal luggage, that of the Latin redimere, to buy back, to ransom, to rescue, release, or set free. However, from the perspective of de Certeau, the word is always in movement, always a passage, as in Newton’s powerful explication of place-flight-border-beyond, “Text mimes travel; terrain awaits its inscription in cartography.”

The Rapture
(photo) made connections that were all the while being inscribed, but nevertheless had not registered consciously. That Redemption Shoes was a project about seeking the grandfather through light (and I avoid some obvious interpretations here) had always seemed a fully secular undertaking. But now I am being tugged by these deeper questions, and these brought more fulsomely to the fore through literature, especially Annie Dillard (lately) and Marilynne Robinson.

Margaret Lowen Reimer (1982) wrote in “The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” When Pilgrim at Tinker Creek appeared in 1974, reviewers agreed that it was a highly unusual treatise on nature. The work obviously exerted a peculiar power, for reviewers were either rhapsodic in their praise or passionate in their indigination. Neither side, however, was quite sure in what tradition or genre the book belonged…Why? Perhaps the book falls between several categories of disciplines--the scientists relegate the work to the religious; the religious view the book as an aberration of scientific investigation. Indeed, the subtitle, “A mystical excursion into the natural world,” hints at the paradox and incongruity which characterizes the book. [PaTC] appears to be a scientific study overlaid with spiritual contemplation, an examination of natural phenomena, which leads the author to an encounter with the Divine. This fervent observer is an unusual empiricist and a still more unusual mystic (182).

Which is to say what exactly? Salt and light. Looking at the last few blog headings of lines derived from Dillard, it occurs to me that looking for him (my grandfather) through light may well have been the central fugitive narrative for him as well, struggling with a life unbalanced on the tipping fulcrum between the sacred and the profane, seeking to strike a harmony between these essentially contradictory forces of mass and light on the graphic plane of the photographic image. The image as redemption.

The resolution of the urgently mumbled prayer was not, however, this realization, but the realization that my equally fervent, mumbled attempts to seek and carve out sacred, undefiled or quasi-undefiled nature in my own life were essential to me--that mystical excursions in to the natural world are required in this seeminlgy unnatural one, top heavy with the profane.

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame…The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam. (35)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

thoughts on love

After all, it would have ended anyway. I've never seen a sunset or felt a wind that didn't. The levitating saints came down at last, and their two feet bore real weight. No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain, inexplicable moments, to know it. --Annie Dillard (who else?)

A day gone backwards. It ended here, at this sign:

Lab ended and I rushed for the bus, and earlier in that day a child at Sophie's school had said, "You have a really skinny neck. Sophie does, too." And I realized I love my neck. It is hard to say that about many parts of one's body, so herewith, photo-ode to my neck:

and for the lovely light, filtering through the windows of the girl's bathroom in Sutton Hall...

and for my friend, Melissa, who is a brilliant anthropologist and wonderful mother of three gorgeous girls and one fiercely-blonde son, who has made me laugh till my sides ache and speaks incredibly beautiful, fluent Castellano...

and the delicious mung dahl filled with love purchased at a sidewalk vendor on the way to try to find "the dress of desire" for the ballet on Friday...

and for the wild, secret path behind the castle that we walk each morning on the way to school, and the sculptress that once lived there, carving her passion into stone. Our lives (my life) is shockingly abundant and filled with love, and that I still long, that I still wish to levitate like the saints, how can I but love that longing also?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tinker Creek of the mind

It may be Annie Dillard week for months, for ever. Last night awake at three and sifting through the pages of an old paper (someone had requested it as a submission of student work) and suddenly our lives are upturned like an apple cart --we had cake for breakfast and the dinner table is an incomprehensible pile of books and leaves of paper, precious linguistic notions, surprising sometimes, scarily profound, trailing off no where, meaning nothing in particular.

Because I was awake half the night I bumped my head twice and felt peculiarly oppressed by a woman at work who has been reminding me, almost every day, that we are not all watching the trees for movement, or gasping in sudden apprehension of a momentary, pinkish cloud-streaked sky. That is head-banging of the worst kind, and probably the type of experience that kept Rilke flitting along the edges of productive society like an etiolated moth.

After half an hour, the last of the stragglers had vanished into the trees. I stood with difficulty, bashed by the unexpectedness of this beauty, and my spread lungs roared. My eyes pricked from the effort of trying to trace a feathered dot’s passage through a weft of limbs. Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening my cells, fleet? (Dillard, PaTC, p. 40)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

the nothingness between me and the light

Shading the glass with a hand, I can
see how shadow has pooled in the valley. It washes up the sandstone
cliffs on Tinker Mountain and obliterates them in a deluge: freshets of
shadow leak into the sky…The shadow’s the thing. Outside shadows are
blue, I read, because they are lighted by the blue sky and not the
yellow sun. Their blueness bespeaks infinitesimal particles scattered
down inestimable distance…They give the light distance; they put it in
its place. They inform my eyes of my location here, O Israel, here in
the world’s flawed sculpture, here in the flickering shade of
nothingness between me and the light.
--Annie Dillard
Yes, it is Annie Dillard week. Each night before going to bed, I fall
in rhythm with her solitary explorations of Tinker Creek. Last night
she was collecting mantis eggs, reporting on the mating ritual, and the
memory of a tragic mutation of a Polyphemous moth at the hands of an
ignorant but perhaps well-meaning teacher.

Today a juvenile possum was out at midday on the balcony of Battle
Hall. Campus Safety officers were poised with long nets in what seemed
a futile attempt to capture the wary creature. People gathered, took
pictures. In class minutes later, we realized that the balcony in
question was actually the bathroom at the end of the hall, and various
students gathered to watch the pathetic drama from a better vantage
point. I returned to class intensely sad. The ripples of laughter and
jokes about how ugly possums are made me feel even more disconnected
from my so-called cohort (we were discussing cohort-component analysis
today). Many times I contrasted in my mind Dillard's silent, solitary
walks with the unhinged and un-self-conscious laugher of being almost thirty. I can never go back. Some part of me already resides in semi-retirement, among waving
prairie grasses, fussily watching over lupine seeds and the ceaseless
manufacturing of spider webs.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came
to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what
was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice
resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and
suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like
as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave
close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,
and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine
meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were
sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true
account of it in my next excursion.

Walden or Life in the Woods
- Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than the illuminator"

The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light of paper inside a pewter bowl. The snow looks light and the sky dark, bu in fact the sky is lighter than the snow. Obviously the thing illuminated cannot be lighter than the illuminator...The dark is overhead and the light at my feet; I am walking upside-down in the sky
--Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Yesterday I went running with S., and we went farther than I am accustomed. During the night I awoke with aching muscles, drank a glass of wine and took some ibuprofen, then spent the next two hours plucking out a tune on the guitar. I can feel the tug of spring. It is music, and aching muscles, and sunburned skin--the delicious reminders of that delirious weight--of being earthly and mortal and poised for emergence into the next act of the drama.

This morning we did the grocery shopping then packed a small picnic to take down to the creek. It is still barren and grey, but this will change in a matter of weeks. I can already see the buds on the trees, tiny packages of new life waiting to burst open. It has changed so much in the twenty years since I first arrived here. There are more bicycles on the trails, and the old overgrown paths are now weary and denuded. It is seldom as quiet as it was years ago when you could sit perched on a rock and not see another soul for over an hour. This creek is the refuge for so many, and so much more fragile for that very reason.

I wonder what readers will think a generation from now, encountering Annie Dillard or Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey or Wendell Berry. Will it all seem like a dream--this once wild and untameable nature?

Friday, February 1, 2008

trusting delilah

Anthonis van Dyck (1599-1641)

To carve an elephant from a rock, you simply carve away anything that does not look like an elephant…

She was there in front of the mirror with scissors, and had hoped to carve from among the wisps, a self she might recognize. Every day a snip here, a snip there. But with each lock falling away onto the cold bathroom floor, she grew less familiar, less recognizable.

Finally she made the appointment. She had two options (maybe three): acupuncture, a mammogram, a haircut. She chose the haircut.

She taps on the thick glass of the salon door early in the morning. The hairdresser is there, in the quasi-dark, dressed as if for a date, and she swishes across the floor to the door and when the door is opened, she enters the calm, fragrant world of the eternally feminine.

She explains to the hairdresser the situation, the endless days of snipping, of seeking. The hairdresser nods understandingly, more understanding than a therapist or a doctor.

“You understand,” she confides, “this is a last resort.”

The hairdresser seats her in a thick-cushioned chair from the early 1900s, and massages her tense shoulders. Her hands are so warm, so reassuring, that all the hours of the last two years fall away to the pine floor. Then the scissors flash, and the wisps fall. Some of them are gray, already betraying the New Year’s Day henna.

The whole procedure takes only a few minutes. Much too soon she must pay and walk back out into the bright morning light, the bitter winter air. But the hairdresser confides one last thing. “For me,” she says, “it is this…” and she lifts her skirt slightly to mid-calf to reveal a blazing purple iris. “I’m getting rid of it.”

Walking to work she doesn’t try to capture a fleeting reflection in the glass; she doesn’t rush to the bathroom to apply make-up or put on earrings; she just walks, noticing the levity, thankful that she has freed herself from the tyranny of the scissors. She is no longer who she thought she was an hour ago, a month ago, a year ago, and she doesn’t yet know who she might have become, but she might not, she thinks hopefully, she might not even care.