“I become a transparent eye-ball”

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EYEBALL IN TREE

 

I think I know where the fountain of youth might be. Contrary to my vain efforts, it’s not in more ab exercises and hair dye or other questionably effective tricks. It’s no particular place or thing, but more like something you become—that, at least, is what I read from Ralph Waldo Emerson, hero of the Transcendentalists– and me, too.

You have to become a transparent eyeball. Strange, no? But come on, it’s a great metaphor, isn’t it? Emerson nails it when he wrote, in one of the most oft-quoted paragraphs in early American literature:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. From Nature, 1936

Sorry, o ye mockers of the transparent eyeball but I LOVE this. And have felt again and again in unexpected moments, usually on walks and in nature, exactly what he means.

Sure, there have been many mockers of the transparent eyeball. Check out this cartoon made by Emerson’s friend after Ralph Waldo first wrote Nature.

 

transparent-eyeball email

And yes, it is weird, it is an easy concept to laugh about. And yes, some might say that new agey spiritualists have taken up the transparent eyeball image, and much of Emerson, too, in fact, as their own. But this is not new agey, this is old agey. Eternal. This is that “perfect exhilaration” of forgetting yourself—it can happen in something so simple or commonplace as walking in Pease Park here in Austin—and it’s probably just as it was for Emerson over 150 years ago walking in the woods outside of Concord. The transparent eyeball is timeless.

And to be one makes us, for at least a little while, timeless, too. “In the woods, is perpetual youth,” he says. And he was a SMART guy.

Something to think about when I purchase my next bottle of L’Oreal Root Rescue. But maybe even a transparent eyeball wants to looks its best.

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“for most this amazing day”

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Springtime. I can’t stop watching the vivid green leaves on the big oak out of my office window. The way that they hold light and cast shadow and shake in the wind. Mesmerizing. How fine they are with just that. So matter of fact, those shining green leaves, as if it isn’t an amazing thing that they even exist. That they have that rounded rolling shape and those veins and how they hold tight to the branches. Although I forget to be amazed much of the time.

Yes, it must be time for a little ee cummings poem:

 

i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any–lifted from the no

of all nothing–human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

Speaking of  “I who have died am alive again today”…It’s Easter weekend, and I get VERY excited to sing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.  Every year at my parents’ church they invite people up on the balcony overlooking the congregation to sing it, and every year I cry it’s so crazy wonderful. I don’t know how everyone up there in the choir isn’t crying—maybe they have developed the capacity to bear such vocal intensity after so many years of doing it. Me, I try not to sob—it’s very hard to follow along with my alto role if I’m in tears. But still, how did anyone ever compose that, something that transcends so much the ordinary and takes you with it?

 

Maybe that’s what Easter is—an expression of the human yearning to transcend limits. Handel is immortal (Every Easter after we sing the Hallelujah chorus, my mom tells me how Handel was so obsessed while alone in his room writing it, he wouldn’t eat until he had finished). And maybe it’s also about keeping the eyes of our eyes open– I don’t want to forget to see the leaping greenly spirits of trees.

 

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“Nothing Exists in Itself”

feet in bath 2012

Brrr. It’s a chilly grey day in Austin, the coldest so far this winter, and a very good day for hot baths and wool socks. It’s the beauty of contrast. If it weren’t for the bitter winds and cold rain puddles, hot baths and wool socks wouldn’t be nearly so marvelous (well, actually, maybe hot baths are always marvelous). It’s like when my friend Charlie and I, in college, made what we considered to be a thrilling discovery: we were trying to hike Enchanted Rock on a blustery winter day and we thought we were so clever to drink our hot tea OUTSIDE in the cold where it would really taste good, as opposed to within the warm interior of his beat up old van, the Voyager. We thought we had mastered the art of delight—always enjoy something amid a context of contrast.

 

While soaking here in the tub at the end of the coldest day so far this year, I think about how much Melville nails this codependence of qualities in Moby Dick. (I also think about the liner notes that Bob Dylan wrote in the cover for his album Desire, they went something like ‘These lines were written in a bathtub in Maine under ideal conditions”). In a particularly stunning paragraph in the Chapter 11, The Nightgown, Melville writes about something so simple as enjoying a snuggle under the covers on a cold morning, but then he zooms out to make a brilliant statement about the true nature of life in general that is all the more impactful for being only four words long: “Nothing exists in itself.” Boom. Everything is contingent.

 

Here’s the paragraph, one of the best in literature if you ask me, all the more so for being so timeless. Ishmael and Queequeg are just waking up at the Spouter Inn:

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

 

There is so much in this one paragraph. To enjoy something, part of you must know its opposite, or something different. To enjoy the warmth, you must feel a little bit cold. To understand joy, you have to feel crummy sometimes. To fully live, you’ve got to know something about death. To taste the tea at ‘the height of its deliciousness,’ we had to try standing in the cold. Nothing exists in itself—it is all about relationship..

And what about this funny juxtaposition—“the luxurious discomforts of the rich?” Love it. I think about it now every time I am wearing uncomfortable fancy shoes or digesting foie gras.

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“Without the least quivering of his own.”

 

Pequod Meets the Rachel

 

In a chapter towards the end of Moby Dick, The Pequod Meets the Rachel, you know that Ahab is a goner– that his mission to kill the whale has stolen his soul– when he refuses to help another whaling captain look for his son lost at sea. When the two ships approach each other, the Rachel’s desperate captain scrambles onboard the Pequod to implore Ahab to join him in the search for this lost whale-boat; onboard were both his son and that of another of the Rachel’s crew members, this one only twelve years old. The Rachel had been searching for the lost children throughout the night. The Rachel’s captain pleads with Ahab, offering to pay him for his help. But Ahab is unmoved. Melville writes:

Meantime, now the stranger was still beseeching his poor boon of Ahab; and Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own.

“I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case. You too have a boy, Captain Ahab…

But Ahab turns away. He knows that his White Whale is near and he will not veer from the hunt, not even to help this “stranger” who is suffering the heartbreak of losing a child. He must avert his face to do so, but still Ahab turns, “leaving the strange captain transfixed at this unconditional and utter rejection of his so earnest suit.”

Angels for newtown

Newtown Memorial by Eric Mueller

It has been four weeks since the shootings in Newtown, and I am worried about turning away, about forgetting. In the days after the shooting, I found that—when I wasn’t in a blur of tears– I wanted to kiss everyone I knew, because even this distant taste of such horror was squeezing me, and the only way out was to turn towards the good people in my life. The gaping hole of terrible loss made all of their faces– my children’s and their classmates, my friends and family, the teachers and other parents at my children’s schools– that much more precious.  I basked in my children, my friends and community. Something split open in me—and I don’t know that it’s a good thing if that entirely closes back up.

But it IS probably a good thing that I’m not still sobbing and laying awake at night worrying about those parents and children and the first responders. Life keeps moving. But I think about them. Everyday. And I also think about this particular chapter of Moby Dick and what Melville knew— that we are doomed when we turn away from each other. Poor Ahab is so caught in his self-centered mission that he is like an anvil “without the least quivering of his own.” And he is miserable.

Also, this captain of the Rachel is not REALLY a stranger. Melville writes early on in the chapter that Ahab actually knows this man from Nantucket. But even so, Melville references him many times as “a stranger.” I believe Melville does this to show that Ahab had to distort the truth of their relationship in order to turn his back on him. When we see people as strangers, as inherently separate and strange, then we can ignore how we are all in the same boat, so to speak, even if one if called the Rachel and the other the Pequod, one is called me, the other you, one is Austin, the other is Newtown.

I’ve felt this over the last few weeks, particularly when someone close to me said, “Thank god they weren’t our children.” True enough, literally– we are not the ones going to so many funerals and staring at the Christmas gifts that now will not be opened. Our lives are not so intimately shattered. But on one level, all parents can feel the blackness of the unsayable loss, even if it’s not literally our own. That’s why the captain says, “For you too have a boy, Captain Ahab.” Melville even emphasizes the “you” with italics. We are in the same boat, and the agony of one parent’s loss is not entirely separate from our own. If you don’t avert.

I hope we, as a country, don’t turn away. I hope that whatever lessons we need to learn from this heartbreak will get a chance to work on us. If that means that our government makes the buying of semi-automatics as regulated, say, as the driving of cars or adoption of pets, I will be happy. According to the Wall Street Journal, after the Dunblane school shooting in Scotland in 1996, the UK began to better regulate gun sales. As a result, there were only 44 gun-related homicides in 2011-2012 as compared to over 8000 in the US. I’m not saying that gun regulation can stop a guy on a mission of self-destructive hate. I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t entirely trust the people who think they do. But I do believe that just like we have laws to make driving safer, we should have laws to make gun ownership safer.

Newtown memorial

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Like those Newtown parents, I am well acquainted with the unique and irreplaceable beauty of a first grader. My daughter and her classmates, in first grade now, astound me daily. Life is an unfolding adventure for them: they are making good friends, really reading for the first time, standing on top of the playscape and shouting out silly songs and clapping out rhymes. To hold my daughter’s flushed, lit up face in my hands— it’s a love rush, like mainlining oxytocin. To have a deluded man take that away from me is unthinkable. And while I can’t comfort those parents who have lost their first graders, I also don’t want to turn away from them and the memory of their children because I’m so consumed with my own whales. I don’t want them to feel alone. I think about the image of the Rachel, disoriented with grief, with which Melville ends this chapter:

“But by her still halting course and winding, woful way, you plainly saw that this ship that so wept with spray, still remained without comfort. She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not.”

Taking the Plunge

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Rodney Gibbs Documents the Moment in 2011

Polar Bear Club on New Year’s Day. We stand on the edge of Barton Springs nearly naked and we take the plunge. Year after year, this whole glorious, giddy affair is a toast to being alive. With friends, with children, with a poem, and probably with some fierce hangovers. Before school starts up again, before the to-do lists take over, before routine sets back in and we forget, this mad ritual is a window into a joy we feel deep in our shivering bones. It’s good to be alive. No matter what.

 

Paula Diving

Lady P

 

Rilke reading

Because we are far from perfect. None of us relish pulling off our sweaters and scarves after weeks of holiday cookies to show off pale winter muffin tops. But we do it anyway. Cause we are together and a jump into the 68-degree water together makes you forget why you even care. Hungover, baring bottoms in January, it’s okay. The exhilaration of the cold blast banishes self-consciousness.

 

Polar Bear- Scott and Mack

 

Because we are together. As anyone in their forties who is both working and raising a family can attest, we all long to be with our friends more then we are. We all long to wear furry Russian hats more than we do. I’d hoped that parenting would include many lazy afternoons with friends and a pot of chili and kids running around. That does happen, but the time-sucking logistics of work schedules, kids’ homework, soccer practice, etc. means that it doesn’t happen enough. But it’s ok. The aspiration to be together goes a long way. We love each other’s company, we love each other, and that’s bigger than my list of things to do–and some days it all comes together without trying so hard.

Polar Bear Hugs

 

Because it is enough. On New Year’s Day, we are full of all the promise of new beginnings. Swimming in the weedy waters of Barton Springs, we wonder why we don’t do this more often–shouldn’t we swim here all year long? It’s a new year and we vow to get more organized, or we vow to get healthier, or we vow to be more patient. That’s all good—as my husband Scott says drily when I talk about all of my new plans, “it’s good to have goals.” But right now, this morning together, frog kicking and breaststroking across the Springs, goofy from too much late night cava, this moment is enough. There is enough perfection right here, right now. And that won’t go away when the too busy routines of our days kicks in again.

Polar Bear-Paula and Flannery

 

Cause Phillie brought a good poem. About unfolding. Every year before we jump in, we bless our plunge with a poem, and the one Phillie came up with for this year was a humdinger. Rilke hits all the right notes, and this one that she read to us, poolside, has set the tone for 2013. Here is her copy, on the right, with the Barton Springs mud that splashed up on it– the capitalizing, I assume, is hers:

 

Rilke Poem

I Am Too Alone In The World, And Not Alone Enough

I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every minute holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action,
and in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.
I want to be a mirror for your whole body,
and I never want to be blind, or to be too old
to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.
I want to unfold.
I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
And I want my grasp of things
true before you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time,
like a saying that I finally understood,
like the pitcher I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that took me safely
through the wildest storm of all.

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

 

So, 2013, let us unfold.