Friday, November 30, 2007

3. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." (Philo of Alexandria)

I drove for weeks, it seemed, and the rain never let up. British Columbia, Oregon, Northern California, driving rain, the soothing swish of windscreen wipers. Rental cars are good, insofar as they are new. Which is to say they are waterproof, and don't steam up. Driving through the downpour, through spruce or pine or redwood, the sense is of being in a bubble of oxygen on a benign but exotic planet, or of drifting through vast underwater forests.

During the trip I was wading, sometimes rapt, sometimes merely determined, through Berryman's Collected Poems 1937-1971, which is pretty much everything except for the sublime Dream Songs. A difficult pleasure, like Weil. He fought great battles, but left great gifts. When I read too fast, they pass me by; it is easy to do, for the density and difficulty invite skimming. The impenetrability can be daunting. It is like a rippled stream: but you have to traverse the rippled section to be there when the water suddenly opens out, when deep transparency becomes available.

"Forsake me not when my wild hours come;
grant me sleep nightly, grace soften my dreams;
achieve in me patience till the thing be done ..."
(from "Eleven Addresses to the Lord")

"You must perhaps both pray for & abandon
your peculiar strength of patience,
daring daily more or all."
(from "To a Woman")

The desire to achieve patience, the desire to abandon it. Haunting contradictions, given the way his battles came to an end. Though there is something enticing in that notion of a daily escalation - from "more" to "all" - of daring. As if it can be developed by practice. I suppose it can.

That reminds me, obliquely, of something I read in Harper's Magazine recently: "Einstein's gravity is not so much a force as a circumstance: the very material of the cosmos has crumpled steeply around you until, almost conspiratorially, all of your possible paths have been narrowed to one." (John Mooallem, "A Curious Attraction - On the Quest for Antigravity")

But I was speaking of rain. I had begun to think that it never rains in Southern California, where I have been lately, on and off. That, as far as weather goes, this place might as well be "The Truman Show". So it has been good to wake up to a steady downpour today.

The hills outside where I have been living were ravaged by fire in April. It's been a kind of moonscape - pretty, but in an apocalyptic way - since I moved here. Then a month or so ago (before I went north, to the rain) there was a period where Griffith Park was closed to the public, and all day, every day, helicopters came in low and dropped a kind of green mulch over the barren ground. It looked like a strange art installation developing, Christo at work perhaps. The photo shows a fresh strip; within days of the drops the greens would become less lurid. It's "organic", or so they say. In Southern California one would expect so. It's a mulch that both reseeds the soil (with what?) and binds it, to prevent mudslides in the upcoming rainy season. I read this in the local paper and was pleased to learn there is, indeed, a rainy season.

Of which perhaps today is the first day?

I would have liked to have seen a mudslide, though.

In the meantime, in terms of visceral entertainment in the local neighbourhood, I will content myself with the frenzied yelping and bloodcurdling screeching of the packs of coyotes that come in from the hills to the edge of the suburb some evenings. (It is always in the first hour or two after dusk.) They are dispatching suburban cats, I've been told. Something's getting hurt, that's for sure, and the hairs raise on the back of the neck, a primal response.

One day I watched from my desk a coyote, immobile in the shade of a spindly tree in a gulch, not three hundred metres away, the occasional languid flicker of its ears the only hint it was not a statue. And yet if I turn my head 90 degrees, there are eleven million people spread out there. At night sometimes it is the distant baritone honking of the freight trains running through Glendale, and not the coyote attack, that reaches you.

When I got back from the rain trip it was Thanksgiving, my first ever first-hand experience of the ritual. It's been fertile ground in films about dysfunctional families coming together to collectively sprinkle salt in wounds, but I was fortunate to be invited to a mellow lovefest, complete with Louisiana cooking. Berryman seems to have a quote for every event:

"For that free Grace bringing us past great risks
& thro' great griefs surviving to this feast
sober and still, with the children unborn and born,
among brave friends, Lord, we stand again in debt
and find ourselves in the glad position: Gratitude."
(from "Minnesota Thanksgiving")

It got me to thinking how if one can live with relatively high levels of gratitude, then one is relatively lucky. Through whatever thick and thin. Through the worst disaster. For the simple surprising fact of having been here at all, and the knowledge that one day that will not be the case, that all things, without exception, will pass. But there is another level. When, through conscious contemplation, one becomes aware that one is experiencing a high level of gratitude: the gratitude increases yet again. A positively reinforcing loop. This is an accessible state. But it must be developed by practice too. Because complacency can act as a grand counterweight; what's more, there's a lot of white noise out there.

Perpetual alertness, mindfulness: life lives in you, it moves in you, it speaks itself.

If I could do this more often (blog, I mean, not be perpetually alert), it might not ramble so much. Though maybe that goes for the alertness too.

Final Berryman:

"... a fair wind and the honey lights of home
being all I beg this wind-torn foreign evening ..."
(from "Overseas Prayer")

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed reading through these blog entries, especially about the various graffiti. Maybe you should fill in the blanks to "ANGEL YOU HAVE DIED IN VAIN" yourself and write the story :) I look forward to whenever your new novel(s) and poetry will be published (circulated) in the states. I loved Candy, for a lot of reasons. And as for the film, it was definitely every actor's treasure trove ... lucky Abbie and lucky Heath ... and lucky everyone else, because every other secondary and tertiary character had an arc too!

I noticed the quote of this particular blog entry and I had always thought it was attributed to Plato - "Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." It jumped out at me because it's one of my favorites -- it pretty much sums up in one sentence an entire philosophy of how to have an easier time at being human. So thanks for posting it.