There’s something about a storm on the horizon that won’t let me sleep– maybe just the marvel that some primeval awareness of weather patterns and their onetime implications for shelter and sustenance still linger in some backwoods of bodily awareness. Even before becoming aware of the first quiet hints of thunder, I’m suddenly awake and can do nothing but lie there uselessly until the system has worn itself out and there are no longer any low, thrilled giggles beneath my window, from late-night walkers caught in the rain.
It was somehow appropriate that I waited it all out tonight with David Whyte’s collection of poems, The House of Belonging. I’m not sure where I first heard of Whyte or his book, which has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years– and I purchased it so long ago that I no longer had any expectations at all about what I’d find there.
Well– the material seemed to fit my mood, or to allay my restlessness to some degree; in the midst of the general tempest that is existence, Whyte, in his poet’s guise, at least, maintains an often frustrating calm in the face of just about everything, exploring how he belongs in the world, and the time and patience necessary to discover that manner of being. The simplicity of the whole project is often cripplingly beautiful, as in the second poem’s reference to his home,
where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.(1)
And Whyte’s acknowledgment even within this belonging of all “the testaments of loneliness” strikes a familiar minor chord with any insomniac with only the pages of a book to talk to in the middle of a blustery night.(2) But there are entire chunks of this volume that seem as if they’d be more appropriate in a self-help manual, more nuanced declarations and reminders of Stuart Smalley’s assertion, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I started to wonder, in fact, if Whyte had also fallen in his past upon emotional times hard enough to have cried half-ashamedly in a bathtub over the truisms found in How to Survive the Loss of a Love (3); numerous lines such as the following made me question whether I’d been deluded about the really good stuff that had come before it:
Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you. (4)
Maybe part of the problem was with what often felt like prose that had simply been sliced into separate lines– not prose poetry, and not quite “poetry poetry,” begging the question of what counts as authentically part of the genre. Even though I’m no fan of strict labels or parameters, I was still uneasy with my basis for wanting to disqualify these sections– namely, the same one US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”(5) There was something about many of these run-on sentences that just couldn’t qualify for me as “it.”
But if nothing else, the book, which really did contain some gems, got me through the first phase of this rainy night; maybe I should take it to my upstairs neighbor, who’s chosen to wait out his own restlessness by pacing back and forth above my head on creaky floorboards. I’ll make another attempt, though, to get some sleep, even though the thunder’s returned, and a few little drops of rain, and I need to shut the windows again
the night wind carries
everything away outside.(6)
(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 6.
(2) Whyte, “The Truelove,” 96.
(3) Peter McWilliams et al., How to Survive the Loss of a Love (Prelude Press, 1993). Credit where it’s due: this was a strangely powerful and necessary volume, a couple of years back. But I’m still going to be snarky about admitting that fact.
(4) Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” 23.
(5) That statement was made as part of 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio, which declared Louis Malle’s film The Lovers not obscene.
(6) Whyte, “The Winter of Listening,” 29.
Down the aisle from me sat a woman with a pronounced Elizabethan hairline, high, high forehead and plucked and penciled eyebrows bent toward the hardback book in her lap, and the audible world blocked out with the unsurprising presence of earbuds. I never discovered what it was she was reading; only that its cover featured bright yellows and reds and oranges, a fitting complement to the late-afternoon sun coming in through the carriage windows, and doing so in an unusually clear and determined fashion for this time of year.
Well-matched, though, as her text was with the weather, the passenger was apparently conflicted between loyalty to or interest in the narrative on paper and the one being created with her own two thumbs and the screen of her phone, which rested against the pages when she wasn’t toying with it.
Much like the title of her tome, I’ll never find out whether she chose one medium or the other, or whether she continued her jumpy oscillation between the two; as if sensing my thoughts, just before I got off at my stop, the woman glanced my way with what seemed to be an optic warning to back off.
Sometimes, you just feel old. Or as was the case this morning, you look into the mirror and see the wreckage of age irrevocably playing out on your face. Not quite a fair call to make, when you’ve just woken up early on a frigid day and the blare of a bathroom light has triggered a bout of what Russian literature so often calls screwing up your eyes. But still: the unceasing forward march of time hits you via an unflattering reflection, and Things take on a grim cast.
But that’s about the most complex articulation I’ve been able to produce in a week or so– and although I’ve been reading like a fiend, my capacity for thoughtful reflection upon all those words and ideas has come to and remained at a standstill. Not freed, though, of the desire to say something, if only to the ether, I’ll hand over one of the better bits I’ve come across in the last few days, something that’s also fitting, both weatherwise and, more ominously, in terms of the entirely mindboggling scenarios so many parts of the world are enduring right now. Enjoy, then, a sad-hopeful-unsentimental little vision from Juan Gelman’s poem, “Winter”:
In this city moaning like a madwoman
love quietly counts
the birds that died fighting the cold,
the jails, the kisses, the loneliness, the days
still left before the revolution.*
* Juan Gelman, Dark Times Filled with Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman, transl. Hardie St. Martin (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Press), 2012: 16.
Now that winter’s here, the train’s interior soundscape has taken on a new dimension, with the distinctly plastic swish of pieces of hi-tech outerwear brushing against each other as their wearers enter and leave the carriage. And that added bulk and the huddled postures that shape it have also increased the obstacles blocking my line of reader-spying vision. But they’re there, those faithful fans of ink and paper; one on the way home, appropriately enough, was reading The Girl on the Train.
The other, I’ll admit, was testing my patience with his apparent inability to understand both how his body occupied space, and the fact that others around him also took up a certain amount of physical area close to or overlapping his own, and that compromise in the placement of everyone’s physique was the only acceptable mark of civilized behavior. But I’ll admit that my irritation at having his quilted-jacket-bound left arm shoved into my side was very slightly lessened due to the fact that said arm was helping to support a fat open book in front of his face. I’m willing, though not really likely, to believe that he was so engrossed in what seemed to be fiction that he didn’t even realize there was an entire mass of people surrounding him, close enough to stir his hair with their breath or swap a body-hopping germ or two.
But the week that seemed it would never end, at least not with my sanity intact, is over, and with promised snowstorms on the way, I can think of no better way to spend the days ahead than mercifully free from the sardine-packing of rush hour, under the covers with a good book or three– at least if I don’t sleep the entire weekend away. Either way, sanity: you can come back home now; the coast looks clear for at least the next forty-eight hours.
You’d think that being laid up in bed would offer heaps of opportunity to read, read, read. Wrong, at least this time, and at least when it came to the written word. In lieu of books, my brain was only aware and ambitious enough over the past few days to interpret the sky outside my window– and an interesting view it was.
I knew that that ever-adaptable compound, H2O, behaves differently according to varying environmental factors– but was still charmed to see what happened on a frigid morning to the steam being emitted from the surrounding buildings’ heating and cooling systems. Almost immediately after a puff of smoke rose up over a roof, which often meant below my own high-rise’s window, that cloud of condensation would hover, compact and immobile, for a good while before rising ever so slowly and dispersing much more hesitantly than such a form would have under less punishing conditions. It was almost as if the quick-freezing particles didn’t know how to react; protocol had disappeared for this breed of water, so used to carrying out its professional routine in a certain way, and the only thing it could do was halt in shocked confusion.
There was also something vaguely menacing about seeing a packed cloud just floating there, heavy in a way and almost looking right at– maybe through– you, as if it were considering invading your home. The threat, of course, came from the fact that things were visibly not acting as I was used to seeing them act– which in turn made me consider why some sorts of change and/or surprise carry with them the hint of danger, instead of something more positive. I came to no conclusion, of course, but did place this experience in the same category as last year’s realization that, yes, freezing fog is an actual thing– a category that includes as one of its qualifying characteristics a combination of beauty and a bit of foreboding– or maybe even evident beauty because a grain of terror is also present.
But then my non-optimal-health brain kicked in, told me I was taxing it too much, and that sleep was becoming imperative. We’ll see what happens the next time I have the leisure, and hopefully full capacity, to observe such a phenomenon.
Yeah, yeah; I know I casually tossed out comments to a few people that presented my recent travel travails as a CliffsNotes version of The Odyssey; I also know I had very little right to such hyperbole. But now, back safe and sound and really too sleep-deprived to be writing anything at all, I’m delving more deeply into the ways in which my claims were totally off base, and that’s not even including the miracle of motorized transportation and flying machines that 1) are not operated by gods and 2) are not used to deliver you into your new existence as a constellation.
a. Obviously, although my journeys involved multiple and unexpected ports of call and close scrapes, they lasted a mere two days, as opposed to ten years.
b. The only island I got trapped on was the Dallas airport, in which there was no male version of Calypso trying to hold me down; the closest I got to being on the receiving end of any attempt to keep me on the spot came from the impersonal agenda of the weather, or maybe from other passengers’ mind-bending insistence on their own perceived right to be flown through ice and general mayhem (and that before anyone else), and to get their knickers in as loud a public twist as possible. I went blessedly unnoticed by any nymphs, save for the able ministrations of the airline’s customer service agents, who, if there’s any justice in this world, will be getting fat bonus checks for the holidays.
c. OK, so maybe at some point, everyone turned into a lotus eater, staring glassy-eyed at the looped inanities blaring from TVs placed every three feet in gate areas, having forgotten everything but the call of one’s own bed.
d. Thankfully, though, no one was required to poke out anyone’s single eyeball; no one, in spite of the stupidly brandished tempers trotted out all over the place, got eaten or had his/her bones used as a giant shepherd’s toothpick, even if it did seem as if someone had opened up Aeolus’ bag of winds that were driving airplanes all over the country out of control.
e. However, I did experience (and not for the first time) the conviction that we were all truly nothing more than well-clad animals, who would have fit in quite well with all those sailors Circe turned into swine. I also felt, throughout this 48-hour period, as if someone had set me solidly down inside the Land of the Dead; had The Odyssey included contemporary images of zombies, it might have gotten close to describing what everyone had become by the middle of the night.
f. As expected, no suitors were awaiting me at home. That’s OK in this case, though, because Penelope’s own clamoring crowd really just seemed like a bunch of mooching frat guys. I also really don’t need any sneaky and bloodthirsty disguised husband coming in and 1) playing mind games with me to test my loyalty or 2) going on an idiotic killing spree.
So yeah; no Odyssey, really. I did get a ton of reading done– much of which will have to wait until later to be discussed, as one of my bags (filled with books) was left temporarily on one leg of travel with family, in order to shed some ballast. (I will say that Mendelsohn’s The Lost was fantastic as a whole, as was Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.) If I can stay awake long enough to do it, I may just finish Roberto Calasso’s K.
But overall: truly grateful props go out to 1) various locales’ airline and airport staff, who have somehow agreed to accept paid roles as nature’s and everyone else’s scapegoats; 2) family with house keys on offer; 3) Amtrak; and 4) a super-fantastic cab driver who was not grumpy at two on a Tuesday morning, and who was a superb conversationalist to boot. Were it not for that whole miraculous combo, I would still– and this is no lie– be at the airport, waiting for a flight out tomorrow afternoon.
And so it begins: the season of having to take a change of clothes with you on your way to work, since the twenty-or-so minute walk there, when accompanied by anything above 60 degrees, results in your blowing into the building a sweaty and unpresentable mess. Sure, we’re just arriving at the end of a mere two-day spike of unseasonably warm temperatures– but I don’t like it, not one bit.
How can you do anything productive and/or creative in the heat? Even though I originally hail from a punishingly hot and humid climate, it was only when living in North Carolina a few years ago that I realized one reason why everything functions more slowly in the South is the fact that, if you try to move at anything like a normal pace (or faster), you’ll just drop down and die. While walking the few short blocks one summer from my place to a coffee shop, it was soon apparent that everything was moving in a weirdly viscous manner, and I felt as if I’d turned into a ball of sluggish magma. Had I tried to read outside, the pages would have melted in the rain of sweat falling upon them, only shortly after the paper that had turned blazingly white had seared my eyeballs to useless shreds, even with the dark glasses worn to protect them. And forget about writing; although the brain isn’t directly exposed to sunlight, all mine could think about in those Amazonian summers was either firing the fewest neurons possible, in the hopes of bringing down total body temperature to an even minute degree– or, conversely, figuring out a way not to freeze to death when walking inside an absurdly air-conditioned building. How did Faulkner– or O’Connor or anyone forced to put up with such climate-based brutality (minus the summer shivers, I’m guessing for those whose lives ended before a/c became widespread)– manage to get anything done at all, much less a wide array of brilliance? Something to investigate: whether they did all their writing in the winter months, and went into hibernation mode at other times…
I’d rather not think about it though, especially since I’ve escaped such living conditions; even today’s just-above-comfortable temperatures are nothing compared to the deserts and rainforests I put up with for far too much of my life. I’ll wait for this afternoon’s promised thunderstorms, then, and look forward to the balm of what might be called moderation– or maybe, “The Story of the Three Bears” (in its most harmless Goldilocks version) principle of “just right.”