Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I choose the side of possibility.

Tonight, the discipline of writing is almost too much; the day was low and cloudy (though warm) from start to finish, and my friend and I spent much of it puttering around Lexington finding great things of small price. I'm going home tomorrow with a couple of new Chaleur coffee mugs for my mug collection; one of them features a brightened up version of the Van Gogh painting I showed you late in January. I also found my favorite Miquelrius notebooks, without even looking for them, at a local bookstore. And after all these years, I've secured a new copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, in the reading version of the R. W. Franklin edition (which I still haven't taken the time to scope out, even though it's been around for almost a decade), so that I can read them unfettered by my young self's inky scrawls. Sometimes I like to look through my old annotations; from too far back, I find that they're mostly quick jottings that make transparent just how tired and overstretched I was during much of college. The quest for Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk continues but looks as though it will get resolved in Columbus, as I wend my way homeward.

From the number of links in that first paragraph alone, you're already getting the sense that today was a different kind of day than yesterday. Some days, I attain a clarity of mind that eludes me on others--which is by no means to say that the busier days don't bring me their own riches. In addition to spending as much time as I could with my friend, whom I now know I've been missing even more than I had realized (she put it best when she said to me, about ten minutes after I arrived here on Saturday, "I realized when I saw you at the door that I miss your corporeal presence."), I commented on a batch of student writings, made headway with Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk (1996), and finished up with Archie Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year, from which tonight's title comes.

Because my friend's cooking was so good tonight, and because the wine was so good, and because the poetry I read while stretched across the floor was so good, and because the hot milk (so good) is almost gone, it's time for me to sleep. But first I'm going to mark some places for tomorrow--to keep you with me, and to keep me with myself.

For one thing, one of the unexpected joys of being in Lexington has been hearing the trains pass in the distance. It's a truth universally acknowledged, or at least posited by Paul Simon, that everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance (everybody thinks it's true). I know I do. The right moment will come, and then you'll hear about how and why I love the sounds of trains in distances.

For another, Kathleen Norris did just as much for me today as Wendell Berry did yesterday, as far as thinking about small town living is concerned. Hearing John Mellencamp's "Small Town" while my friend and I walked through a local mall also did a number on me, in a good way; Mellencamp's song is about a small Indiana town about half an hour from where I grew up, and many of its lyrics tell me to myself in ways that can catch me off guard but that are generally reassuring, in the end. I don't plan to marry an L.A. doll and bring her to my small town so that she can become small town just like me, though, in case anyone was wondering; Mellencamp and I also part ways when he claims that he's "seen it all in a small town." While I have had myself a ball in several small towns, I tend to wrestle more with the small town part of my identity than Mellencamp seems to do. Perhaps this divergence is a direct result of my not actually living in a pop song's life narrative; I suspect that things are a lot more nuanced for him, twenty years later, as well.

How Mellencamp got that whole paragraph, while Norris got only its first sentence, I'm just not sure. Perhaps it's because, faced with so much to say about her, my brain is wholly cordoning her off for tonight. But I will say this much about her: she has me thinking, for the umpteenth time, about how I define my spiritual identity, both to myself and to other people. The Cloister Walk is Norris's account of living in the Benedictine community at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota; it's organized both chronologically, working through the liturgical year, and thematically, working through a series of essay-length meditations on various aspects of her faith and experience. One of its simplest lessons is that "monasticism is a way of life, and monasteries are full of real people," and this lesson, in turn, gives Norris's book broad applicability. But her more complicated points are about the confluence of poetry and prayer, creativity and spirituality, in her own life, as she sounds her faith by feeling her vocation--her experience of how "thoughts and images constellate, converging, sometimes violently, in the subconscious" when she writes poetry--and is returned to her vocation through her strengthened faith. "One might grow into faith much as one writes a poem," she suggests. "It takes time, patience, discipline, a listening heart. There is precious little certainty, and often great struggling, but also joy in our discoveries.... In matters of the heart, such as writing, or faith, there is no right or wrong way to do it, but only the way of your life. Just paying attention will tell you what bears fruit and what doesn't." I have tried to read this book at least three times in the past and have always stalled out after about twenty pages. Now, I wonder whether I simply needed to wait until I was readied for it, in part by having finished grad school, in part by having moved back to central Ohio, in part through professional developments that have freed up some space in which I can turn back toward these kinds of questions.

My friend is a deeply spiritual person, and practicing her religion in an active community of like-minded and like-spirited people is a crucial part of her being in the world. And so I knew that she was the right person to talk to about how tentative some of me feels about the turn toward spirit that my writing has taken since December, and so I broached the topic as we headed home from the Kroger just after rush hour this evening. We talked over what I talk about when I talk about agnosticism; we talked about the limits of knowledge and the borders of belief; we talked about our families and some of our friends and their religious practices.

And then, just after dinner, as I lay on the floor letting Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year unspool its way over me, I found an answer to my questions that will do for now and might even do for the long haul. It's as close as I can come to telling myself what I believe. Ammons muses on having gone to church with his wife a couple of days before Christmas in 1963:
the singing started:
though the forces
have different names
in different places &
times, they are
real forces which we
don't understand:
I can either believe
in them or doubt them &
I believe:

I believe that man is
small
& of short duration in the
great, incomprehensible,
& eternal: I believe
it's necessary to do
good
as we can best define it:
I believe we must
discover & accept the
terms
that best testify:
I'm on the side of
whatever the reasons are
we are here:

we do the best we can
& it's not enough:
I really regret that I don't know enough html to get the spacing of Ammons's lines just right; every time I put spaces or indentations in my composing window here, they disappear when I publish my post. You'll just have to check Ammons's poem out for yourself, if you like the bits I've given you in the past couple of days. One of the things I love about Tape is that its formal properties and its diaristic whatever-may-come nature seem to me a more sancitified and rich version of the project on which I've embarked here. The other thing that I love about it is that its sentences almost always end in colons, which at his fingertips, on his adding-machine tape, become the most hopeful of punctuation: There's always a next thing coming: there's always another image: there's always a tomorrow: and it will never, ever be enough:

2 Comments:

Blogger KYlitprof said...

I hope I did enough listening.

I am not even home yet, and already I am imagining the emptiness of the house without you in it. As much as I think that we are each in the place the is right for us right now, I am often saddened by the fact that those places are so far apart.

Wishing you the best in all of your quests.

12:58 PM, March 09, 2006  
Anonymous stepanova said...

When I lived in Kirkwood, MO, I would hear a train whistle every night around midnight. It was really lovely. Almost made it worth it to live in Kirkwood.

8:11 PM, March 09, 2006  

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