absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

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twice-told tales

  1. The little lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin

who gets left behind when the others are led off to their magical fate, weeps and weeps as if his heart were broken. He can never be comforted, because he sees it all; he knows what he has missed. Since he could not follow the music, he will have a long, boring, sated life, without wonder in it, marked mainly by isolation and mild contempt disguised as pity, in which each day is nothing more than a series of moments existed through until there are no more moments left for him. While his lost companions will go singing and dancing wildly into an invisible shining world full of mystery and marvels – even if it seems to the fearful, hesitant, grasping townspeople that they are being led away to bitter death.

  1. The Grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood

What was she doing living out there on her own in the woods? There’s always been something suspect, something louche about her. If she’d just agreed to live in town with her daughter and son-in-law, none of this would have happened. But it may be that the grandmother is a kind of bohemian, an independent-minded sort who doesn’t really get along with her children that well, and her granddaughter loves to visit her because she can’t wait to get away from her oppressive, boring parents, with their chores and nagging. Anyway, as the grandmother knows, sooner or later we’ve all got to face the predators out there; we’ve got to succumb to them or become them; c’est la vie. And it’s a wise child who knows her own grandmother.

  1. The animals in all the tales

The goats, pigs, spiders, geese, cats, donkeys, mice, rabbits, deer, foxes, swans, chickens, crows, eagles, ants, serpents, bears – extras, walk-ons, or stars, they all leave the set each night exhausted, muttering glumly, knowing they’ll never get anything like what they’re worth for their work; they’re just being used for their exotic qualities. But their real lives are never shown, never make it into the tales that light up the big screens. It’s always all about these rich, self-absorbed apes, with their clever tongues, draped bodies, and busy hands. The other animals wonder how it all came to be this way, and how much longer it will go on being this way. They take their meager pay and trudge stoically back to the tattered fields and woodlands at the edge of town, to watch and wait.

what is left to desire of the world

when you sit in sated comfort on a ground sixty millennia deep in bloody corpses, tortured beasts, blighted forests, poisoned springs?

Only to see it come down, all of it, forever, the whole construction, from the annihilating vapidity at the dizzying apex of power to the blooddrenched foundations of steel and stone.

Let it come down, then. But not this time in the hate-spattered promise of another patent holocaust, the tirelessly sequeling unfinal solution, the entropic triumph of vengeful murder on a grand scale, the default template of history, the apocalypse of waste.

Enough.

Instead, patiently, silently
brick by brick, stone by stone, wire by wire, the disassembling.

Only deep time can promise its fulfillment but here now in the teeming empire of chaos and collapsed time, any one of us can begin this.

Let me begin, then, let everything I think and say henceforth be a minute diminution of the mutant edifice that betrays the only law and hope of living things – diminish entropy, deepen complexity.

Wise as serpents, gentle as doves, let us raise our tiny hands to initiate the work of eons, knowing our hands can do nothing as long as the superstructure holds them fast and so starting (but not ending, never ending, once begun) with the most basic elements, the flashing neurons in our brains.

Let us kindly, humorously, generously, hopefully
dedicate ourselves to life, and

begin to unbecome.

the boojum

A boojum had appeared in the skies over earth, darkening the minds of many of its inhabitants with terror.

The end is near! they cried to one another. They spent time in desperate conferences arguing about what should be done: try to forestall the end, meet it with stoic dignity, or barricade themselves in a cellar full of supplies and hope it overlooked them somehow.

Interestingly enough, however, most of the inhabitants of earth were unable to see the boojum. This appeared to be the case at least in part because they covered their eyes tightly with their fingers or dark glasses and jammed small devices in their ears that played soothing music nonstop.

Meanwhile, as the boojum hovered overhead making dreadful noises and stirring up gargantuan storms that swept houses into floods, piled snow to the rooftops, and tore up the land, plunging it into darkness for extended periods, most people went on with their usual activities. And most people died as they had before the boojum arrived: from illness, accident, age, or at the hands of other people.

Those who could see the boojum kept waiting for it to do something definitive that would reveal it to those who could not or would not see it. But the boojum seemed to be utterly indifferent to their desires and, in fact, to their existence. It didn’t have an easily definable shape; it would morph oddly or fade away at the edges whenever they tried to look straight at it or take pictures of it.

The ones who kept looking the other way whenever anyone else pointed at the sky went on about their lives with relative ease, clucking their tongues at the TV news when it showed another house floating on storm waters, great fires burning unchecked in distant forests, or cars piled up for miles in a blizzard. They worried instead about the usual monsters with which they were more familiar: criminals, and People Who Stop You from Getting Ahead.

By the time the boojum left again, a thousand years had passed. In the quiet eons that followed, a small number of people (there were, in fact, not so many overall as there once had been) tried to figure out why it had come and what life had been like before it arrived. But it must be said that most people simply didn’t want to know. One thing they had learned was that regardless of whether reason was awake or asleep, it seemed to breed monsters. Another thing they had learned was how to lace their fingers over their eyes just tightly enough so that the sun still shown through, and to be apologetic and polite when, as often resulted, they bumped into one another as they walked.

an old woman at the end of her age

The world is spinning faster into darkness now, it seems to me. But for the old, of course, that is always the way it seems. As my life closes, I look out on a dull prospect perhaps—but secure in the belief that even in the little, unimportant stretch of time I’ve lived, I have known wonders.

I’m not anyone who will be remembered after. I’m another like most, like almost all of these intricate, vivid, longing ones who’ll disappear without a trace that will last beyond the time when the few who knew them are gone too.

But I’m going to dissolve into everything, to rejoin everything that is, no more terrible separation – can’t you see how happy that makes me?

I will have looked out this tiny window of consciousness onto the world for a flickering moment. What a privilege! Among all the mute beings, the dark and silent worlds. And yet the price was high – that separation, that loneliness, our awful gift. We’re turning this world into a cinder now because of it. But why don’t we just see: we will melt back into the world again one day, our matter dispersed, intermingled, to become part of what is looked at, what is experienced. Who knows how many times the particles of my being will be broken apart and recombined with others in the wise, blind, creative, unfolding dance of existence, long past the death of this one world and its star.

And all the time, in spite of us, sweeping us along, sweeping past us – life perhaps expanding always in filaments of conscious light, building towards the day when maybe the whole shining web of galaxies is afire with thought and vision, down every minutest fiber of the great cosmos – all alive!

The cool blue days of my childhood are gone now. It’s hot, or cold, gray, or black. But every so often there will be a day almost like one I remember from long ago, and I feel again that sweetness of the air that seemed to be holding itself in perfect balance for my pleasure, wrapping me in its soft arms like the child I was and saying:

“How I love you! Look at this day; I gave it to you and to everything that lives out of love, nothing but love.”

Shut the window now, I feel as if the dust is choking me.

It’s time; it’s long past time, for silence.

silent night

A man staggered into our house one night. The wind from the storm that was raging outside blew in with him.

“The last one is dead,” he gasped out, when he could speak.

“Who?” “The last one of what?” We all spoke at once.

He gulped for breath, and slumped into the place that was quickly made for him by the fire.

“The last one who remembered the old ways and spoke the old language. The language of the trees and animals, of the clouds and wind. Now there is no one left who can speak to them for us.”

There was a brief silence. Then someone said: “Well, we knew it was coming. They had been dying out for generations. We knew it would happen someday.”

“But…” said someone else, “what is it that will happen, or has happened, with this death?”

“I’m not sure,” said the first, “but I think—“

“Wait,” said another. “Listen!” From within the howling of the storm through the cracks in the windows and the crevices in the walls, another sound was beginning to emerge. It was like the mournful cry of an animal, in the depths of pain or loss. Then, rising slowly, other cries joined it: animals, birds, winds, waters—everything in the world that made a sound was crying out in what sounded to us like the most unbearable grief.

There was a great crescendo of sound, as if things we had never heard at all before: the moon and stars, trees, rocks, soil—had joined the chorus. We felt ourselves engulfed and pierced through with the strength of their grief. We hung our heads and sunk to the floor with the weight of it. Within us the inconsolable world opened a chasm of loss.

And then the sound stopped completely; it was gone. We waited and listened, but there was nothing. Absolute silence. It was terrifying. Those who dared to look out the windows thought for an instant that there was nothing outside at all, that the world had vanished and beyond the walls was an endless void.

But then in less than the blink of an eye or the beginning of a thought, the dark night-forms of the world were visible again outside the windows: the black silhouettes of rocks and trees against the dark sky strewn with shreds of cloud and the dim light of re-emerging stars.

Still the silence persisted. And as we began to murmur in wonder among ourselves, we realized that there was no other sound, not a single one. No sound but our voices. No other sound but our voices now and always, echoing inside the walls of our tiny house, the only shelter left from the world of silent forms.

the man who lived on

We stood in a canyon of dark, massive buildings that soared over our heads and extended for as far as the eye could see. Yes, I want to have hope, she said, but what are we going to do about all this? Waving her arm vaguely at the blind dark towers all around. Unassailable. Millions stirring inside them: unique and transitory as snowflakes falling on the river. The air smelled of steel and brick, nothing else.

“In a thousand years,” I said, “all this will be gone.”

And look! Here is a forest of ferns and reeds, swaying unbroken down to the sea.

I turned out to be exactly right. That’s some comfort, even if I’ve been wandering, alone and lost, ever since that day, even if my home is gone forever…

And all those millions! What did it mean that they were here?