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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

Stuart came up to me excited about a book he had just read, explaining an Asian philosophical system.

“It was written in the 16th Century,” he tells me. “By a Buddhist monk in southern China. It is a largely forgotten offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, with a heavy dose of Taoism, a bit of Tantric Buddhism thrown in, and just a touch of Vedantic philosophy, although heavily filtered by Confucianism.”

“Sounds like quite a jumble,” I said. 

“Maybe, but it’s really interesting.” The things Stuart finds interesting is extensive, and doesn’t always translate. 

“It’s known as the ‘Way of the Seven Effluents,’ although it is sometimes called the Seven Exudations.”

“Seven?”

“Yes,” he says. “It’s always fun finding the way so many Asian religions, or philosophies like to number and count. Like so many Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. They had the Seven Deadly Sins and the Nine Rings of Hell, but in India and China they counted up the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Five Ranks, The Four Invisibles, the Four Dharma Realms, the four Varnas and the thousands of numbered sub-castes, the Eight Immortals, the Four Moods of poetry and art.”

“It can get quite bizarre,” I said. “I remember reading the Kama Sutra when I was in college and it numbered all the possible coital positions, as if they had been catalogued by Linnaeus. We’re confusing several religions and philosophies here, of course — India, China, Tibet, Japan — but there does seem to be a shared cultural compulsion to count and divide.”

“It shows up everywhere,” Stuart said. “Like Lao-tzu wrote: ‘The five colors will blind sight; the five sounds will deafen; the five tastes will spoil the palate.’ Number, number, number. Have you ever tried to read any of the Upanishads? Lists and divisions. It can be overwhelming.

Well, Hsing Tao has his own list,” Stuart continued. “He lists the seven substances produced by humans which exit the body to enter the world. They each have a function for the proper ordering of the body and its organs, and a function in the larger world they enter.”

“These are actual things?” I asked. “Or are they like the subtle substances of Eastern philosophies, the seven chakras — real but not corporeal?”

“No, they are quite real, quite ordinary, really. Interesting you should mention the chakras, because there is some similarity with the effluents, although not strict. Actually, kind of vague.

“But they are — starting from the bottom of the body, quite literally —  feces, urine, semen, sweat, saliva, mucus and tears.”

“What about ear wax?” I said.

“Not a part of this system,” he said. I’m sure there are other possible exudations, but these are the seven.”

“So far, the thing that stands out is how male-centric this system is. It includes semen, but not milk. Does Hsing Tao not recognize the other half of humanity? And what about the monthlies? Do they not count as an ‘exudation’?”

“I’ll get to that. But it is true. Still you should remember that most thought systems worldwide either don’t take women into account at all, or place women in some lower position. Let’s not be so proud about ourselves. Did you see the recent study that showed that medical trials almost never take account of women’s bodies, but study only men, as if women were somehow aberrant. But Hsing Tao does make allowances for women. I’ll get to that in a moment.” 

“OK, please go on. Tell me about them.”

“Simply put, feces eliminate the waste of the body; urine keeps the body isostatic; semen is for reproduction; sweat regulates body temperature; saliva renders dry food digestible; mucus moistens the air we breathe; and tears regulate the pressure of internal emotions.”

“As opposed to external emotions?” 

Stuart was not put off by my sarcasm. “Yes,” he said. “Emotions, according to Hsing Tao, are a substance that can expand inside the body, rather like a full stomach, and when the pressure inside is too great, in times of great sorrow or joy, the pressure equalizes through weeping. It is really a very mechanistic philosophy, at least for an Asian system.

“It is a machine, sort of, which processes food into feces and the leftovers must be eliminated. But here is where the public functions of the exudations comes in: Collected ‘night soil’ fertilizes the crops for all of us.

“Hsing Tao is quite forward looking when it comes to pee. Most of us tend to think of kidneys cleaning the blood of toxins, but the most important renal function is to keep the water pressure inside our bodies even. For Hsing Tao, you drink to keep the body from drying out, and you urinate to keep things evened out, so the body does not become turgid. 

“Saliva turns solid food, with the help of the teeth, into semi-liquid chime that we swallow and digest. It is also used to solemnize oaths. This is something that seems to happen around the world in most cultures. We spit in our hands or spit on the ground to seal the deal or punctuate a curse. Thus, a public function for an otherwise personal substance.

“Mucus is a bit trickier. For Hsing Tao, it moistens air so that when we breathe, we do not dry out our insides. This is also part of the process of isostasis. Lungs must not dry out, or they will get leathery, according to the book.”

“Fine, but what about women? Surely a philosophy cannot allow only men to populate its street corners.”

“Most Asian philosophies see the introduction of opposites as a product of maya, or illusion. Just as in Galatians, the apostle Paul says that in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” in Hsing Tao, the ultimate reality is neither male nor female, but as in the Tao Te Ching, “The unwrought material, when divided and distributed, forms vessels,” or in the world of phenomena, the one divides into the many and as it arises from the void, humanity divides into male and female. 

“In the third chapter, or sutra, or whatever you want to call it — the third canto — the author makes the equivalence between semen and milk. They both bring forth life, semen from the male, milk from the female. Both necessary for the propagation of the species.”

“And, of course, semen is usually rather milky.”

“You mock,” Stuart says, “but in fact, Hsing Tao makes this very point. He seems to think that they are the same thing, but one endowed with maleness and the other with femaleness, and therefore a mother’s milk cannot inseminate another woman.”

“This is all very weird. But there is still another body output you haven’t mentioned. And it seems rather important. Certainly more than mucus.”

“You mean the menses. I’m afraid Hsing Tao doesn’t count that among the exudations.”

“A notable omission.”

“For us, yes, but for Hsing Tao, the expulsion of monthly blood is not a simple product of body function, like the others, but a physical embodiment of a spiritual conception. It’s not like any of this is, by modern terms, scientifically defensible, but in his scheme of the cosmos, the monthly cycle is the work of the gods — or the void — and when a woman is not pregnant, the spirit invested in her has no fetal body to enter and so is expelled and it takes blood with it.”

“I’m not sure why this doesn’t count, though, as another exudation. Why is it not included? Why are there not eight — or for that matter, nine — exudations?”

“What? You want any of this to make sense? What religion or philosophy you know of makes any sense at all? Any of them breaks down at some point. Humans try to regularize the world and make sense of it, when none of it makes sense, at least not in any way the human mind can surround.”

“Then why bring it up in the first place?”

“I like to see different ways the world can be organized, the way we have fought against incoherence, found patterns where none exist, insisted that somehow, it all makes sense. Every schema breaks down at some point. Every ideology is provisional, ever solution a transition.

“When we look back through the history of ideas, what we see is constant change, or rather, constant replacement of currently accepted ideas by ideas that seek to clarify the obvious shortcomings of the previous. People like to think that this change, like the change in art styles, is propelled by mere fashion, but really, it is dissatisfaction with the version we were born into and an attempt to fix it. But the fix is always just as partial as the inherited belief.

“I like to see these earlier ideas as all equally true, in some sense, out of a humility that our current understanding is finally the right one. The four humors? The four elements? All previous creation myths? All some version of the partial truth. And so, I think of Hsing Tao.”

Stuart went on. “In this sense, at least. It feels as if we are always trying to alleviate the internal pressure of our bodies, or our feelings. The human being is expansive and the body cannot easily accommodate the fullness. So, if we see Hsing Tao as metaphorical rather than medical, there is truth in his philosophy. I know, when I have an idea, I can’t wait to let it out.”

“So, I see,” I said. “You have forgotten the most important ‘exudation.’ The one for which you are the patron saint.”

“What is that?” Stuart had a quizzical look on his aging face.

“The thing your body most expresses are words. Words words words. Speech is also something that leaks from the body. And perhaps, in your terms, the most important pressure valve for that internal build-up. Which leads me to the obvious.”

“Which is?”

“That there is no book. No ancient book of Asian philosophy. This is all a figment of your imagination. A great joke you play with yourself. You made up Hsing Tao, didn’t you?”

“Caught me.”

When you look at a map of Alabama, you see it has a little tail at the bottom. It is where you find the city of Mobile, and where you find Baldwin County. Mobile is to the west, Baldwin County to the east of the vast Mobile Bay. 

My daughter, Susie, worked for years at the Mobile Register — she is the third generation to become a journalist — but lived across the causeway in the county. 

The two are very different. Mobile is urban, with shipyards and warehouses, high rises and traffic. 

The county is rural, with farms, fishing shacks and at least one high-end bayside resort: the Grand Hotel at Point Clear. 

When we lived in Phoenix, Ariz., we visited Susie and our granddaughters once or twice a year and I managed to circumnavigate the county pretty thoroughly. 

I would sometimes make day-long excursions with my camera. I was a photographer before I became a writer. For six years, I taught photography at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va. 

But that was back in the days of Dektol, D-76 and Kodabromide. Cameras used film and gave us negatives to print. I was trained at a time when for most of us, photography was black and white. 

That tended to govern how we approached our subjects. If color meant nothing, we had to focus on form, on darks and lights. 

As a result, my eye was attuned to shadings rather than hues. 

And so, my first forays into the back of Baldwin County were seen in black and white. 

What I had in mind, more than anything else, were the photographs of Walker Evans, who made some famous Depression-era photographs in Alabama. Old service stations, abandoned farmhouses, agricultural towns with raw main streets. Evans was wonderful. 

When you see a boatload of his work, you can’t help seeing how many times, on the same day, he made multiple images of the same subject, trying to capture it from different angles and distances, later choosing the one image that said what he wanted to say. 

Walker Evans, “Selma, Ala.”

So, as I drove through the backside of Mobile and the county, I sought out similar things, and made multiple angles, too. 

One day, when the womenfolk were out shopping for clothes, or shoes, or whatever it is that the female gender tends to focus on, I took my camera out and drove up and down County Route 13, which runs north to south in the County. 

In a single day, I finished a project that I printed up and displayed under the show title: “Southern Baroque.” 

I found ruins, 

trees,

homes,

cotton fields,

Tractor paths,

and weeds, lots of roadside weeds. 

And at the end, Weeks Bay, an offshoot of Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of pelicans bobbed like decoys in the water and scattered in the air. 

In all, I wound up with about 50 good images to show in the exhibit. 

On an earlier trip, I tried to capture Mobile. 

I found oil tanks,

shipyard derricks,

downtown iron-rail balconies,

and restaurants on stilts along the causeway, safe from storm tides.

But Tri-X and Photo-Flo went the way of the mastodon, and I eventually had to take up digital photography. Turns out, it was a revelation. 

I was never happy with color film. Kodachrome was too garish, Ektachrome too grainy. Some photographers, such as Ernst Haas and Eliot Porter, managed to make stunning color photos, but they had the advantage of dye-transfer, a process way too expensive for a mere teacher. 

So, over the decades, I had worked at training my eye to see in textures, shades and shapes. My sense of color had begun to atrophy.

But using the digital camera, I began to relearn color. I began to see in color. I hope I have been able to blend that with the lessons of shape and light I had already learned. 

And then, when I traveled Baldwin County, I had an eye for color. It screamed out at me. 

And instead of traveling down Route 13, I followed the Fish River, a few miles to the east (and also ending at Weeks Bay.)

I began where the river is not much more than a rivulet. It was crowded with multiple greens, and the rich tawny stream bottom was delicious in contrast. 

It was early fall, and leaves had begun to turn, and those that hadn’t were drying out. 

I wandered down the road by the river, stopping once in a while to catch a patch of grass,

or a tangle of branches,

or a great tree

or a beautiful tangle of old oaks.

But I cannot credit merely the change in technique for this awareness of color. It seems to be something that has come to me with age. 

When I was young, I tended to see the world in starker terms. I was cocksure of myself, and so often wrong. But the black and white coincided with that black-and-white worldview. 

As I got older, I grew softer. I became more attuned to my insides — how I felt, and aware of how others felt.

I imagine this has something to do with a decrease in testosterone — and thank god for that. I am a kinder man than I ever used to be. 

It may also have something to do with having a family made up almost entirely of women: daughter and two granddaughters. I can’t say I learned empathy — that implies a will to do so.

But rather, that an empathy has pupated in me and emerged in my senescence, fully colored. 

Whatever the cause, color now delights me no end. Sometimes when driving, I will choose a color and make an especial notice of it and how often it appears. It’s surprising how much yellow there is in the world. 

And like so much else I’ve learned over the long span of years, it is paying attention that matters. Live slower, notice more, enjoy more. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Forty years ago, when I was heartbroke, uprooted, unemployed and deep in depression, I would regularly ride the ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. It was a cheap ride for a pedestrian and I could go both ways for one fare. There was breakfast to be had onboard and the early morning light, often through mizzle and mist, was the perfect visualization of my inner state. 

Sometimes I would get off on the island and hike through woods just north of Winslow, the town with the ferry slip. I saw goldeneyes and grebes, cormorants and wigeons, mergansers and coots. The Northwest is mostly made up of Douglas fir and western redcedar, but Bainbridge Island had a great stand of maples. Wildflowers bordered the roads. 

I was alone on the crowded ferry, with the constant churn of the motor under the deck, staring out the rain-spattered window at the expanse of water. There is something about water, and about moving across its surface that I found soothing in my loneliness. A band of sunlight  would blast the waves and quickly disappear again. 

Yonkers ferry

I have ridden many ferries over the years. The first I remember was the Yonkers ferry from Alpine, N.J., across the Hudson just north of Manhattan. I went with my uncle to visit his in-laws. I remember very little of the trip — the ferry was discontinued in 1956, so I had to have been less than 8 years old; more likely I was about 5 or 6 — but I do remember the river, the waves, the expanse from one shore to the other and the low skyline of our destination. I have absolutely no recollection of the in-laws. 

It is the flatness of the water, disturbed by the wind into a disruption of skitter that sticks in my mind each time I take the boat. It is both calm and nervous at the same time. The Hindu idea of māyā is immediate: an ideal world brought to motion by the wind on its reflection. The early lines of Genesis also comes to me: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Breath of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In some Native American mythologies, the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, is manifest as wind, which animates the prairie grasses very like sea waves. 

Perhaps in times of distress, the ferry ride puts me on that sea and I can breath the same moving air that animates the waters. It can calm or at least give me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. All of which sounds mighty grandiose when you are considering a boat made of iron and grease that rattles across the Sound so that commuters can get to their jobs. 

At any rate, ferries give me a kind of mythic jolt. Which is why when I was coming home from a visit to my brother at the beach, where he lives at the head of the Outer Banks, I opted to take the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound. The Sound separates the barrier islands from the low-lying and swampy mainland. It is about a five mile trip across the water from slip to slip. It takes about three-quarters of an hour on the water. 

Unlike the huge Puget Sound ferries, the boat across Currituck Sound is puny: It has room for only about a dozen cars. Its main purpose seems to be to carry a schoolbus from Knotts Island to schools on terra firma. 

Knotts Island, for the sake of honesty, isn’t really an island, but a peninsula that hangs down from Virginia into North Carolina, through the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is half water, and full of waterfowl, reeds and water lilies. The island is mostly in North Carolina, but its top bit is still in Virginia. 

In years past, when I taught in Virginia Beach, I would take my photography students down to Mackay Island. There was everything to photograph. I went there on my own many times, sometimes just to soak in the brackish air and watch the stretch of water. There is a yearly “Peach Festival” on Knotts Island, and my wife and I and several of our friends went to the orchards to pick bushels of fruit. We spent days processing the peaches into jams and chutneys. 

So, I have history on the island. And now that my wife is gone, the trip back across the island to take the ferry brings up a whole life, its aftermath, its redolence, its meaning. 

Unlike the Seattle ferry trips, this one is sunny. The waters are calm, shivered by only a small breeze, although that is enough to provide the flat waters with texture. The channel markers are home for bird nests. There is an osprey on one, and cormorants spread their wings to dry on others. The ferry chugs past them, some to the right, some to the left. 

The water is wide enough that the far shores are a horizon line, and toward the south, and the spread of water around the curve of the earth, there is no far shore to be seen. The flatness of the day erases the line between water and sky, between life and death, between now and then. You can still make it out, but barely. Waters are deep, and so is the sky. In revery, like Ishmael hypnotized by the sea, I fall into fascination with the obscurity of horizon, of border, of things that have names, but whose names are merely tags to hide the essential sameness, the unity. 

There is a startling beauty to this state, I gaze at the line, horizontal, that seems to exist, then doesn’t, then exists only because I know it’s there. Am I inventing it? Māyā. 

The sky circles the top half of heaven, the water, the bottom. It is a circuit. The sun arcs from east to west then continues west to east underneath our feet, underneath the boat. I am laughing at myself for my seriousness. But I am put in mind of circles and spend the rest of the trip finding circles everywhere on the boat. Can a circle be the primary form of the cosmos? Can it be the crown of a hat? The ridiculous and the mythic are comically the same, same as the sky and bay, water and air. 

Well, I am an idiot. I am alive, still, and what does any of this mean other than I can breathe, inhale and exhale and feel the swelling of my lungs and the beat of my heart: “Close on its wave soothes the wave behind.”

All is lost; nothing is lost. The breath of the gods moves upon the waters. They shiver.

I can hardly pass a public aquarium without going in. I love them. But when I watch those finny torpedoes bolting about in the water, it raises in me two very different reactions. 

First, those creatures are delicious. Paired with garlic and butter, you have shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, trout. Is it any wonder when I visit the aquarium, I get hungry? 

I see them swimming around or crawling on the bottom, and I am like a hungry Mack Swain in The Gold Rush looking at Charlie Chaplin and seeing a great chicken, ready to pan fry. Those salmon, flashing silver in the watery sunlight — I see them pink on a plate, with some roasted potatoes and asparagus. And perhaps a nice chilled Gerwürtztraminer.  

When I lived in Seattle, I had a membership in the aquarium on Pier 59, and often when leaving, I would wander down to Pier 54 to Ivar’s Acres of Clams to satisfy the anticipation I had built up watching the wee beasties behind glass. Alder-smoked salmon was the perfect completion for a visit to see the silver-sided fish, catching the light like the shiny metallic jets built just north of town by Boeing. 

But the second reason to visit aquariums is for the meditation. Watching the beasties gliding through the aqueous brine lets the mind float as well. I sit against the wall before the large, main tank, and watch, hypnotized with the same fascination one has before a campfire — fish for chispas.

Monterey kelp forest

I am considering modern aquariums here. It used to be that — much as zoos used to be cages with iron bars — aquaria were ranks of small fishtanks along a wall and you would move from one to the next to see which individual species was featured there. But now, like zoos having built “natural habitats,” modern city aquariums are immersive experiences: huge tanks with either a plate glass window the size of an Imax screen, or a transparent underwater tunnel that lets you watch the underside of sharks as they waggle over your head.

The grandaddy of them all is the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, with its giant kelp forest. The Seattle Aquarium is my second favorite. There are notable aquaria in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa, and Charleston, S.C. There are even aquariums in the desert or up in the mountains: The Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev.; the Denver Downtown Aquarium in Colo.; and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The biggest of all, with 10 million gallons, is 1000 feet above sea level in Atlanta. 

A week ago, I spent a day at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. It has grown fourfold since I lived in the Tidewater region 30 years ago. It is a vast complex, mixing mega-tanks of fish with smaller educational exhibits and hands-on stuff for kids. And there were lots of kids. Yelling, screaming, running, falling, crying, laughing. I could find a seat along the back wall in one room or another and watch the fish. The children seemed to cluster at the shark tank, leaving the other, smaller exhibit to me and a few adults. I could sit for hours and watch the piscean floorshow. 

There are smaller tanks, like the one with the horseshoe crabs. Another has ancient deepsea fossils, and you see how, across time, life changes, and stays the same. The trilobite and the horseshoe crab are clearly cousins. 

The most oneiric tank is the one with jellyfish. Those slow, meandering medusas, pulling tight, then relaxing to propel themselves aimlessly through the fluid universe are a kind of mantra, inducing that state of mushin no shin (mind without mind) that Zen philosophers aim for. It is a state where you clear your thoughts of all idea, and only feel the slow rhythm of the jelly — the rhythm of the cosmos before words were invented to sidetrack us. 

It is a state without ideology, without past or future, without expectation, without regrets. It is a state closest to the Biblical name of the deity: “I am that I am.” And for the minutes you stand in front of that backlit tank, with your mind detached from your body and floating along with the jellies, you are one with Creation. Then, of course, a gaggle of children shunts you aside and giggles as they watch the caps and tentacles before moving on to the next tank, or to the sharks — and the connection with the All is snapped. You may try to reconnect, but the mood is broken.

So, you move on to the next exhibit. For me, that is the large tank with the bony fish, which dart this way and that in seeming random patterns. But you watch over a span of time, and you begin noticing choreography. The fish form groups, the groups connect, disjoin, and then connect in new ways. 

It is very like the group movements of a Balanchine ballet, where several groups of three shift into groups of four before redefining themselves as a line, then opening into two circles and then into pairs twirling away in groups of three again. The counterpoint of movement is what makes Balanchine so distinctive, and so profoundly moving. 

And these hatchetfish do the same in the water, three this way, four that, a shoal becomes broken into individuals. They dart from this side of the stage to that with such grace, that tears come to my eyes. 

I’m afraid the normal aquarium-goer, like the visitors to art museum, spend little time with each exhibit. Mostly they pour in, point at the sharks or the mantas, perhaps look at the labels beside the glass to name which kind of shark they see, then move on to the next tank. To reach the Zen state I am after requires patience: sitting still for quarter- or half-hours at least, trying to empty your head of thoughts, just becoming one of the fish in the watery universe, until the water no longer exists and it is all universe. 

Others attend church to feel this, or take up yoga classes, or go driving aimlessly on rainy nights. Without occasionally refreshing your life by entering this state, I don’t know how anyone could bear the weight of the world.

I am writing this for myself; you needn’t read it. Usually, if I include myself in a piece I write, it is only to provide a personal angle on a wider, more general point that is the purpose of the text. I try not to intrude on your patience. But here, I really am writing for myself: If you continue reading, you will be eavesdropping on thoughts not aimed at you. 

One of my granddaughters is currently on an archeological dig in Peru, part of her university studies. I wrote her saying this could be a life-defining experience for her. And that began my thinking: What have been those life-defining moments for me? I don’t simply mean chronologically, such as we all encounter as we age through our existence, such milestones as going off to school, turning 21, getting married and divorced, suffering job interviews and eventually retiring. No, I mean those episodes that bend the twig so the tree is inclined: Those things that turn us into ourselves rather than into someone else. 

I could start, like David Copperfield, with “Chapter 1: I am born.” Not for the mere fact, which is universal, but for the inheritance I was given in the womb of the random pairings of genes that govern a good deal of my personality, abilities, and inclinations. I began not ab ovo a blank slate, but with bits of genetic material that came through my parents from their parents before them and so on, tracking back, if I had the means, first to Africa, and then beyond to single-cell beasties in the pond water, and before that to the prokaryotes and lithotrophs, the bacteria and the original amino acids, some semblance of which are still floating in my chromosomes, like genetic homeopathy. This ancestry is still there in every cell of my body, and they all have a “life-defining” push and pull. 

Beyond that, the first experience I had that altered my life was going to school, and not just the school, but the going. From kindergarten on, I walked to school every day and home again. It was a mile from home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary School, and I soon began to take “short cuts” home each day, which were new routes often so far out of the way, I actually went through neighboring towns on my nostoi. These routes served two functions: first, that I avoided the routine and the boredom that ensues; second, to explore the wider world and see what else was out there. I have continued to explore and to avoid routine for the rest of my life. 

Then there was the moment I learned to read, although I cannot remember a time I couldn’t. But there was the discovery of the school library, which was also the town library, in the basement of the Charles deWolf Elementary School (we had moved). I read every book I could find there, subject by subject. Third grade was devoted to dinosaurs. 

After that, the next turning point, I believe was in third grade, when in art class we were asked to draw Christmas trees for the holiday. I earnestly built my tree up with a trunk and branches, which curved upward, as they do on a fir tree. My teacher told me I was wrong, and proceeded to demonstrate how a Christmas tree really looked, making the familiar diagrammatic greeting-card or cookie-cutter shape.

I was outraged, because I had looked at Christmas trees and I knew I was right and the teacher was wrong. So much for any trust in authority. I took from this a trust in my own observation. This would also later lead me to mistrust many mere conventions that were widely taken to be iron-clad  truths. 

As much as I loved grammar school, I hated high school. Most likely, it was just a victim of my adolescence. I studied and learned the things that piqued my interest, and ignored subjects that bored me. Concomitant grades. I got many an A in hard subjects and too many a C or D in subjects I found boring, badly taught, or otherwise had little interest in. 

But two events aimed my life in new directions. First, I worked on the student newspaper, expecting to be its photographer. But I wrote two stories for it, and both won state-wide awards. I didn’t know then I would become a writer.

The second was finding a girlfriend, who, it turned out, would go on to become a professional bassoonist, and while we were courting, we listened to classical music. I remember fondly sitting on her parents’ couch with her, spooning to the soundtrack of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. My homelife was oddly devoid of music. I was insufficiently stimulated by the popular music of my time and my own parents seldom listened to any music, except what turned up on TV variety shows, and so, becoming exposed to serious music was a revelation. I became not just a writer, but eventually a classical music critic for my newspaper. 

In college, the single most important thing was a class in English Romantic poetry, not so much for the poetry, but for the hard kick in the pants I got from the professor. I was always a smart kid, and was used to knowing how to get good grades, i.e., how to give the teacher what he or she wanted. I knew all the usual tricks. But somehow this professor didn’t want me to give him what he wanted. My first paper came back with a D-minus on it. What is this, I thought. I gave him back what he said in class. But what he wanted was not some rote lesson, but rather he wanted me to engage with the material. It would not have mattered if I was completely wrongheaded, if the wrongheadedness evolved from a genuine dive into the poetry, paying attention to what was actually there. The D-minus was like the slap a doctor gives a newborn to begin life. 

In a way, this was simply a reinforcement of the Christmas tree lesson: Trust yourself. Not arrogantly or stubbornly, but as the starting point. What the book says, or the teacher, must at least at the beginning correspond to my own experience. I may later learn more, and expand my horizon and discover my own ignorance, but the start is myself and my serious engagement with the material. Lesson: Pay attention. 

This has been the first of the two greatest lessons of my life. No: three. 

One other thing happened at college: A friend who had a horrible family turned out not to have a horrible family, and the ruin they had planned for him turned out to have been the psychiatric help I didn’t know he needed. It was another sort of kick in the pants: Things are not always as they seem; there is always more context and backstory than you have access to. This lesson was reinforced a few years later when I read through Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which hit home like a ton of bricks. I had been Darley, I had been Balthazar, and the omniscient view of Mountolive does not exist in the world outside fiction. I was suitably chastened and forever after not so cocksure of myself or anything else. 

I skip over my first marriage and the birth of my son, because I was too young, ignorant and callow to understand any of it at the time. The marriage lasted just three years. Suffice it to say that I was repaid karmically in my next relationship for my callousness and unrecognized cruelty. 

I then lived with an exceptional young woman for seven years. I was settled into that relationship for the duration. My life was mapped. That is, until she told me she had decided to marry someone else, a shock that blindsided me and knocked me off kilter for at least five years, during which I left the state, moved to Seattle and tried to find another life to lead. I was a lost soul. 

I shared a house there with two lesbian doctors and the world’s most obscene man. It was across the street from the zoo, where I found work at the snack counter. The WMOM, who had written several pornographic novels (the first, Sixty-Nine In-Laws, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), was already a published author, and I learned from him a thing or two about writing. I had been so immersed in literature, that when I wrote anything, it was like I was trying to be part of a university curriculum. I wasn’t writing for readers, but for libraries. The WMOM instead wrote quickly, facilely and more like he spoke than like Strunk and White instructed. I learned not to take my words so seriously, but to have fun with them. 

I read constantly, and among the formative books were virtually everything Henry Miller ever wrote. He reinforced the lessons I learned from the WMOM and taught me the importance of flow — that the writing could pour out like spring water. It’s a lesson maybe I’ve learned too well. 

Incidentally, the WMOM has cleaned up his act and is now one of the literary lights of Seattle. Unfortunately, his writing has become so literary as to be almost unreadable. It’s like we exchanged places. 

I practiced writing through letters. I wrote everyone and frequently. I kept carbons of them all. In March of 1978, I pumped out 500 pages on my aqua-colored portable typewriter. The nozzle has been wide open ever since. 

I had a brief romance in Seattle with a zookeeper. The relationship ran hot and cold, and made no sense to me: Did she like me, or did she not?  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to move back East. Only years later did I discover the tragic situation that she was in, and the trauma she had suffered and never told me of. It once again underlined the truth that we never know the whole story, and we should never judge, for we are ignorant. 

This was the second most significant lesson, which I was given reinforcement any number of humbling times. I hope I have learned to wear my nescience gracefully. 

Back in North Carolina, I was close to homeless, and my best college friend and his wife took me in. I lived with them for a year and a half, at their sufferance. They saved my life. But I then found my real wife. We were together for more than 35 years until her death two years ago. 

That encounter was the single biggest thing that happened in my life. In an echo of the English Romantics professor, she forced me to take seriously the fundamental questions of living and to give up any lingering glibness I wore.

Ignorance is about the only thing I had no knowledge of when I was young. I had an answer to pretty much everything. Now, I realize that if I knew a lot of facts, it wasn’t because I was smart, but because the facts stuck on account of my brain being gummy. A collection of facts is not only meaningless, it also prevents learning. When I was a young man, I must have been insufferable. 

I did manage to make some spare change in bar bets. But what I learned from my wife was not so much how to think outside the box, but rather to remain ignorant that such a box even existed. She was the single most intelligent person I ever knew, although that fact might not be immediately apparent when you first met her. She was likely to say the most incomprehensible things, and only if you argued with her — sometimes for two days at a stretch — did you come to understand exactly how brilliant and insightful — how comprehensible — those odd things really were. 

She admitted that she had once been intimidated by my command of facts, but, the longer we lived together, the more I came to value my own ignorance, and the more freely I came to answer, “I don’t know.” She once told me her disappointment. “You used to know everything,” she said. Well, now I don’t. 

She also made me live up to my ideals, and she made me aware, not immediately, but over the long haul, the vital importance of family, and being constantly concerned for someone else’s welfare. The lesson came into profound use as she became increasingly ill and I had to care for her. What she gave to me by her slow decline is inestimable. The greatest hours of my life were those I was able to give to her. I would have given every hour I had, past and future, if she could have lived. 

Her death was the last — or at least the most recent — life-defining point, as I watched her go and came to realize, not something so stale as that life is short. We all know that, especially the closer we come to the end. But that there is little but breath and metabolism behind all that we love and care for. Take that away, and we stare at the void. 

And I can never be vain about my abilities or accomplishments, because not only will my breath and metabolism fail, but that the entire Earth has a sell-by date, the sun, the stars and the universe all sing the lines from Brahms’ German Requiem: “dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss.” 

What I could not have imagined coming out of college is that there is nothing distressing or mournful about this, but rather that I have a small, an infinitesimal part in a vast cosmic dance. 

The value is not in the result, but in the engagement. Gratia Rudy. 

“What gives you joy?” asked Stuart. “I don’t mean what do you EN-joy, but truly fills you up with an uncontrollable emotion, maybe brings you to tears?” 

I thought about this for a moment. It seems different things at different times set off the buzzer. 

“That’s a fuzzy question,” I said. “Joy is one of those words that covers a whole basket of things. Like ‘love.’ Everyone means something different by it.”

“In this case, I guess, I mean something that fills you up, as if emotion will burst you open. This is very different from pleasure or happiness. Originally it meant ekstasis – a moment when you stand outside your ordinary self, and feel a connection to something bigger than you.”

“That’s a tall order,” I said. “How often does it even happen?”

“Maybe I’ve made it sound too grand,” Stuart said. “Sure, there is the big transcendent blast, but it can happen in smaller doses, too. The big ones are life changing, but the smaller ones carry you through an hour or two of rising above the ordinary.”

“As long as we leave love out of it, and theology, too, then I guess I get most joy from the arts: Music, dance, painting. Odd moments when I’m reading poetry and a line or idea takes off and I become emotional. It can make me weep uncontrollably.”

“Billy Blake said, ‘Excess of joy weeps.’”

“Of course, only when the performance is good — or not just good, but exceptional. Other times, I enjoy them, but those times that are transcendent are rare, but necessary.”

“Necessary?” 

“Yes. Just going to the symphony every week is fine, or to a play, or the ballet. But if once in a blue moon a performance doesn’t reach beyond that and pierce the essential innards of my psyche or soul or emotions — I don’t know what you call it — then it’s hard to justify the expense of buying the tickets. It’s that nearly-never performance that makes all the others worthwhile.”

“Anything else?” he asked. “I mean being an esthete is fine, but what about non-artistic things?”

“Certainly. Love has elevated me like that, although more often when I was young and an idiot. Now, it is seeing someone I love feel joy that raises my heart. When I was young and with the woman I was nuts over, seeing a breeze blow the hem of her skirt or the wrinkles of her eyes, or even the ridges of her knuckles would send shivers through my being. That was transcendent.

“Now the thrill comes from cooking for someone I care for and seeing them enjoy what I have prepared. That actually gives me something of the same feeling.”

“Interesting,” said Stuart. “Because I have this theory…”

Here we go, I thought. Buckle up. 

“… this theory that people are roughly divided into those who are what I might call ‘sensualists’ and those we might call ‘activists.’ There are other classes, too: There are the depressives who never feel that elation we call joy.

“This came to me when I asked Genevieve this question. Although playing viola with the orchestra is her job, nothing gives her greater pleasure in her off-hour time than playing quartets with friends, or accompanying on the piano as another friend sight-reads a sonata. Sitting in and playing music with others is for her the ultimate in joyfulness.”

“I recognize that,” I said. “Carole felt the same way about playing four-hand piano. The two players meld into a single entity in the music. It gave her deep pleasure. She often asked me to play recorder while she played piano. I usually declined: I did not get the same thrill she did, perhaps because I had no real talent for it. I did once sing Gutte Nacht from Winterreise as she accompanied. You would not have wanted to hear me, but it made her happy and that made me happy.”

“Yes, well, that is the activist, the one who gets joy from doing. But I thought of you, on the other hand. You observe. You watch. Your joy comes from seeing a well-performed ballet, or the rich gray-purple in the background of a Renaissance painting. It is the sensual side of things that fills your sails.”

“I never thought of myself as a sensualist,” I said. “I’m too dull and academic. But I see your point. It is through my senses that I apprehend the transcendent. Looking, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling: These are all real portals into the reality of the cosmos. And it is seeing them, like the stars and Milky Way in a truly dark night sky, that gives me a sense of something bigger and beyond myself.”

Stuart smiled. “That is exactly what I mean by ‘joy.’ It can be found in the sense of how you are connected to things outside your self. What I call activists, in this sense, are those who find that experience in caregiving, or hiking in nature, or playing music with others — something outside, bigger and more important. The sensualists are seeking the same, but find it in metaphor, in what they see and hear. The Beethoven symphony that is a metaphor for the struggle of life, or the Balanchine choreography that does the same for the dance of the cosmos.”

“When I see a great dance performance,” I said, “I feel in my own muscles the twisting and flexing of the dancers’ muscles. Hell, in a particularly good and athletic performance, I can feel it in my own body so much that I need liniment the next day.”

“Iris Murdoch once said we always seek out ways to ‘unself.’ Usually, we are stuck in our egos, which is a boring place to be, claustrophobic, anxious and lonely. We want to know there is a bigger place to be, in which we are a puzzle piece that fits a waiting empty spot. What is more, that puzzle is vast, extending to the ends of the cosmos. It what we feel when we magnify, like Mary in the Magnificat — ‘Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est’ — and extend our being out to the night sky and the bright pin pricks there.”

Aldous Huxley wrote that humans have “a deep-seated urge to self-transcendence. I know what Stuart was talking about. I have often felt it, even in an unguided universe.  

“Yet, there are those who don’t feel joy, or at least, when I ask, they seem puzzled, not sure what I mean by the word. These are people, I think, who either don’t have the gene for joy, or who are depressed and squeezed flat, or who have not yet found their capacity. Surely they had it when they were children: Kids seem to drink directly from a fountain of joy. Joy requires a certain lack of self-consciousness, an openness, even to make yourself goofy or admit to emotions that others may not feel. 

“Depression flattens the world out — talk about the flat-earth people — and the …”

“Well,” I interrupted, “what does it for you? You always have these theories, but they are never directly about you. What gives you the giddies?”

Stuart talks a lot, but seldom about himself. There is always something held back, as if his jibber-jabber were a way of shielding himself.  

“I dunno. Let me think. I’ve gotten old — we’ve both gotten old — and can look back on a long history of sorrows and joys, both those I’ve caused and those I’ve been dealt. I have to say that the sources of joy have changed radically over those years. It used to be I felt most awake and alive when I found a new lady love to dazzle me, but after three mangled marriages and …” 

Here, he looked toward the sky and sort of bit his lip as he used his fingers to count.

“Seven, yes, seven significant other relationships, the blush of that first encounter has gone. Now I’ve been with Genevieve for eight years and I feel I’ve finally settled in, and I have found that I sometimes can watch her sleep next to me and feel that sense of magnification, expansiveness, joy, just in seeing her, and feeling that we are joined as co-puzzle pieces.”

“So,” I asked, “is that activist or sensualist?”

“Maybe I need to rethink this,” he said. “There is something passive, not active in this sort of joy, but neither is it sensual. There is joy I find in simply its ‘is-ness,’ the fact of it, the actuality and not theoretical. The ‘is-ness.’ That’s the best term for it.”

“God tells Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ But you don’t need a deity for that to be true. The cosmos is that it is.”

Stuart looked at me. “I remember Joseph Campbell talking about a newborn bawling, and that it is its way of proclaiming a joy that says, ‘I exist,’ or, as you have it, ‘I am that I am.’ Perhaps we’re finally getting to the bottom of this.”