Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Book Of Splendor

            I live in a world getting noisier and noisier by the decade. Electronics hum on my desk and the few remaining non-digital clocks in my house mark the passing seconds with tiny ticks. A refrigerator and dishwasher thrum in the kitchen and the oven timer chirrups when the perfect temperature is reached for the doughy loaves of honey wheat bread I am making. The air-conditioner kicks itself loudly into compliance with the thermostat I set last night; next season, the heater will do the same. Pots simmer on the stove this morning and the tea kettle screeches. Morning radio fills me in on the news of the day: a truce is broken between Israelis and Hamas and, elsewhere, Islamic militants surround a mountaintop where refugees huddle in terror. When I turn on the television, news arrives of a young man shot down in Missouri and the room erupts with that community's outrage and the violence in its streets.
            In the basement, a water heater chugs along and the sump pump rumbles. Outside the neighborhood, traffic rushes by on the highway that runs the length of this island, drivers adding their bit to the already-unbearable road noise with horns and music blaring.  On the outskirts of town, an amplified calliope brightly accompanies the merry-go-round for children and a hawker invites everyone on the fairgrounds to pay their small fee and enter the tent "where marvelous things will be revealed." 
            In the middle of it all, I sit on a pile of old concrete patio blocks under the trees, scribbling down what I almost cannot-hear for all the noise of the afternoon. The birds seem far away and the chittering squirrels. Likewise the dogs scruffing and playing about in the pine straw nearby.  It is a hot day and steamy in the way a day becomes steamy and miserable in the South when it has rained for many days in a row.  I am becoming a swamp – sweat-streaked and sticky – but I have to stay where I am just now: something is trying to be heard, trying to arrive, despite my personal misery or the ordinary day's loud ruckus.  I am forging again my relationship to language, to words.
            My friend Derick, who is a writer, carries around a hefty black sketchbook filled with perfect-bound, blank pages: a book of substantial weight.  At almost any time, you can happen upon him on campus and he will be nursing his cup of lukewarm coffee and writing things there in his large, cursive hand, or drawing fabulous pictures, loops and coils, in the pages' margins.
            My friend, Craig, who is a journalist, is always on the move. He too likes this kind of notebook – one which, as he says, ". . .will not come apart when sand gets into it."  A durable notebook. For durable words. Words that will last.  Words to be read.  Important words.  Words that can make things happen. 
            And then there is my notebook: a flimsy little book with maybe a month's worth of thin, blue-lined pages, bound together by string or staples or, sometimes, by glue because I have a deep affection for glue, for how hard it works to hold everything together.
            My kind of notebook is one that is forever coming apart at the seams.  Mine is a notebook almost wrecked by sand and dew, by rainwater and ferny matter, Now it also smells of wood-smoke after I laid it open in front of a beach fire one night to dry its damp pages.  Between the things I've written in these pages, I've tucked bright blooms – black-throated poppies or blue forget-me-nots – and the printed scraps from sweet fortune cookies they give me at the corner Chinese restaurant. On more than a few pages, the blooms I've tucked inside have stained the writing pages and, overlying my pages of writing, is the watercolor ghost of some flower that has already crumbled and fallen away. I like opening the little book of pages and seeing its apparitions or getting a fragrance of wood-smoke or rich loam, that up-rush of where I have lately been. 
            What I have begun to understand about my writings here, even in the moments in which something profound may surface in them, is how rightfully they belong on paper that tatters and frays and wears thin at the edges.  On something that falls apart.  Something that will not be preserved; something falling, under the stern hand of time, back to its most basic matter.
            All things, or so it is said, have lives and half-lives; all things are nuclear at their center, and I believe that too, don't I? So what harm or good does it do if I put all the words I cannot speak aloud into tattered little books like these? What harm to let them live out their lives and half-lives and then let them fall back again into the earth, into the dust and ash from which they came? 

            It is a noisy, noisy world. Let my gift to it be silence.

            There was a time, though, when I wanted nothing more than to finish a sentence – just one – before someone started talking over me.  It seemed such a small thing to ask – that I be allowed to speak my piece uninterrupted – and yet it seemed such a great imposition for those around me.
            Thus, in due time, I brought silence to the table, to the conversation, the conference, the meeting, the party.  Why wreck further a half-wrecked heart?  The sorrow could do me in.


            Early on, I created a country for myself, a homeland of silence in which I could pitch my little tent in peace.  I became that country's sea and its vessels, the rich cargo in every dark hold.  I became its mist-shrouded mountain and its gray valley of fog.  I became its meadow of children playing and its moon's littlest white fang, the prodigal and the return, the squandered inheritance and the fatted calf being readied for slaughter.
            Most mornings now, I sit on a sunny stoop.  What must passersby think of that quiet woman in her flour-dusted apron, eyes closed, taking in the sun?
            Assuming they even see her at all.
            I worry some days that living in a kingdom of silence, I might also have become invisible.  It's starting to seem that way.  Still, is it reasonable to be this startled when some stranger nods, Good morning, or a kind friend writes, "a sweet and cunning smile" as he listens to you and takes down the spill of your words?


            In this kingdom, there is a library and a kitchen, a garden and stone ruins, a school and a playground, a wise woman and a fool, but a fool like the Fool in the Tarot: a Querent, a Watcher, a One-Whose-Number-Is-Naught. When Fool shows up, it is always to be a silent provocateur, to be the question posed. And then to vanish again.
            So what is Fool's question today?  And to whom?


What tongue is spoken at the river's mouth?

On what muddy bank does the ferryman wait and how many coins for the passage?

Who holds the map to the lost world?

Who folded time and put it in its deep closet of stars?

In whose book is my name written?

From what book is it being erased?

Is silence a sin or a virtue? 

Who will hold God accountable for His silence?

            The Book of Life is God's book.  In it are written the names of those who belong to Him.  It is said God commanded the angels to write down their names before they were named, before they even were.  A name is either there or it isn't.  If your name is there, you enter glory.  If your name is absent, you are cast into a lake of fire, into Outer Darkness, into the place of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

            The Book of the Dead is Man's book.  It is a book of spells which will carry the dead one into the afterlife. The first spells in the book are said by family or loved ones as funerary rites.  Spell 25 ensures that the dead man will remember his own name, for a name itself exerts power, even in the afterlife.  The Book of the Dead also equips its owner with the mystical names of the grotesque monsters he will encounter in his journey and it names their names.  To know their names is to have power over them. 
            Thus the dead man is entombed and he descends to the underworld where the body regains its powers of movement and speech, after which he must pass those gates guarded by those grotesque, dangerous spirits, spirits with names like Blood-Drinker-who-comes-from-the-Slaughterhouse and One-who-eats-the-excrement-of-his-hindquarters.
            Once the dead man has successfully passed the guardian spirits, he must endure a final ritual, the Weighing of the Heart, for the ancient Egyptians believed the heart was the part which represented the whole man, and it included both intelligence and memory.  Thus comes every man before Anubis and her feather, her feather which signifies truth and justice. Any heart heavier or lighter than that feather is rejected and that man is immediately eaten by The Devourer of Souls.


            Friend, today I am writing The Book of Splendor.  In it, we go on living, as we must, in splendor, for what is splendor if not the way we go on - you and I - trying to be, each moment, merciful and kind in the face of certain and inevitable annihilation? In this book, we are weighed only against love, that brief and fragile feather. 
            I have written my name in this book. You are also there in its brief pages.  The chapters and verses of you.  The body and blood.  The smallest hosannah of you.