I’ve reached the Sphinx’s three-legged afternoon.
I hobble and my hip gives voice
with every thump of my cane.
How did those thumping men —
Ahab of the scrimshaw leg,
Long John Silver with parrot and crutch—
find the energy for obsession?
If books are being reinvented today, it is not because digital technology has permitted their liberation from print. No, quite the opposite, digital technology is built on text. As always in the human story, imagination and writing are the instruments of creation.
I heard a comment on the radio that very little survives of Dickens’ London. Statistically, I am sure that this is true. But I was once walking South of the Thames when I passed under a wet, black bridge and was suddenly struck by a panicked sense of evil. I almost ran out into the daylight. By a set of dripping steps, I saw a plaque. Here, in ‘Oliver Twist’, Dickens set the murder of Nancy, by Bill Sykes. So some of Dickens’ places do remain.
Dickens’ descriptions of London are, of course, not photographs, but selections, from Dickens’ roving eye. What would Dickens see today? He would see Canary Wharf, but he would also see the immigrant workers with no papers, sleeping in the streets behind Victoria Coach Station. I do not think he would be impressed – perhaps appalled – but still, fascinated. And blogs? He would have had six of them.
His left eye was completely gone. The skin around his right eye hung in deep folds beneath it, the lower eyelid stretched and turned outward, weeping, a dark red color– the same deep red as the stone we had just bought. Out of that horrible socket, though, his eye slowly focused on my face as I held onto it with my own gaze. Bonjour, Monsieur, comment ça va, I said softly, and watched the light in his eye brighten ever so slightly. It was as if he — the man inside this ravaged body — were swimming up from a great depth, having almost forgotten how. We looked at each other, and something like a smile formed on his face. Merci, he said. Merci.
What should they do for their megrims,
lethargy, catarrh, lumbago, vertigo?
I can only tell them there is no cure
for ordinary good health, the discomforts
life offers gamely.
You see Nighthawks, and I look across,
past the canvas’s edge, to the other side of the room.
Eddie squeezed in, angled uncomfortably over Jo.
The smell of hot oil & coffee, the roar of politeness.
The thing is, the realization that death is death is immensely comforting. Were there an off-world heaven to which the dead, non-corporeal me was consigned, I’d do my best to obtain conscientious objector status. I love this planet: why would I want to spend a conscious eternity looking at it through a veil of gauzy clouds? Far better to ooze, insensate, into the world, to become part of the tree’s flesh and the coyote’s fur and the bighorn’s helmet.
Maybe I’m insignificant.
Maybe I’m everything.
Watch me open my hand.
Such a happy new hobby all this was, at its best quietly life-changing. It was also desperately frustrating and a path to renewed appreciation of why we bury ourselves in duty and effort or sink into apathy. To be attentive, to carve out space for seeing, feeling and for creativity, could feel like just another obligation, another drain on resources already spread too thin. This is where the concept I had learned from Buddhists and others of ‘practice’, a modest but steady commitment and removal of choice, was helpful. And it was helpful to try and take writing also as a practice.
A great wheel of upbuilding and raveling never stops, and at its dark center one verges onto another world. It’s rather like the biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing”—that is, to make one’s entire life lit with the radiance of knowing God, knowing a greater life and being more alive. Art is always calling us to a larger life, to other worlds…