I visit him a few times downtown
while he paints.
We talk about how he’s going to Spain
for the fall semester
and he shows me a painting he did
and points to this one part,
a bridge, and tells me he thought of me
when he painted it.
It is so sad
how knowing something
can make me so happy.
― Samantha Schutz, I Don’t Want To Be Crazy
Fireworks, Vernon Bridge, Theodore Earl Butler, 1908
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. nor look through the eyes of the dead…. nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.
There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), Henri Rousseau, 1891
We are known, appreciated, even cherished by our favorite writers; every word of our favorite books seems to have been written for us. Within their sentences and paragraphs, those writers are forever available, forever patient, including us in their compassionate recognition of the impossible, exhausting complexity of being human (those “many thousand” selves), never ignoring us or abandoning us or finding us dull. It’s you, they whisper, as we turn their pages, you are the one I’ve been waiting to tell everything to.
The word I love is Arete.
It has a simple meaning and a complicated meaning. The simple one is: excellence. But if that were all, we’d just use Excellence and I wouldn’t bring it up until we got to E. Arete means your own excellence. Your very own. A personal excellence that belongs to no one else, one that comes out of all the things that make you special and different. Arete means whatever you are best at, no matter what that is. You might think the Greeks only meant things like fighting with bronze swords or debating philosophy, but they didn’t. They meant whatever you’re best at. What makes you feel like you’re doing the rightest thing in the world.
But when they made love he was offended by her eyes. They behaved as though they belonged to someone else. Someone watching. Looking out of the window at the sea. At a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat.
He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.
So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in shorts. He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression.
―Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
I was helpless in trying to return people’s kindness, but alswo helpless to resist it. Kindness is a scarier force than cruelty, that’s for sure. Cruelty isn’t that hard to understand. I had no trouble comprehending why the phone company wanted to screw me over; they just wanted to steal some money, it was nothing personal. That’s the way of the world. It made me mad, but it didn’t make me feel stupid. If anything, it flattered my intelligence. Accepting all that kindness, though, made me feel stupid.
Kelly Ledsinger shared this poem, entitled Offshore, at our last Open Mic, The Journey. What is most striking about it for me is the honesty and extreme openness of the expression. Some poets rant and rave and amplify their emotions, while others try to forge distance between themselves and their feelings. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but Ledsinger takes another path, uniquely and refreshingly present with her emotions, full of a poetic mindfulness that allows emotion to breathe. It is a brave poet that lays the details of her life before the audience. She paves the way for empathy by sharing first.
He rises early and packs his duffle with a weeks worth of underwear and denim. He never really sleeps much before his journey. He makes a thermos of coffee for the drive to the Gulf. It will help him stay awake on those long dark stretches of Texas road
She packs him snacks for his drive, fusses and worries that he hasn’t had enough sleep. She always worries about him falling asleep behind the wheel. She can picture the officer at her door and the widow’s sob on her lips. But they have a son still in college, a mortgage and retirement to fund. So he climbs in the old beat up truck he drives. He won’t leave a nice truck sitting for the Gulf winds, the sea and the sand to corrode. No use in throwing good money after bad he says. He packs his bible, his daily devotional, a small worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Time magazine and a radio.
He likes to listen to NPR and classical music. He knows most of the people he works with will be listening to Fox News and country music. He knows he is different. It doesn’t matter much. He is of an age where what others think matters less. He is his own man as much as he can be without losing his job. He hates working on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. But he loves his wife of thirty-three years and their son. He is so proud of his son. He and his wife are having a rough patch right now. But they will weather it like they have everything else life has dealt them. The marriage is their lifeboat in a world of storms and they cling to it with the desperation of the drowning.
He arrives at the Heliport. Gets his duffle and secures his car. He looks around the waiting area as the other men arrive. He sees the young guy who is a vegetarian and who shares his bunk room with him. He’s alright he thinks and doesn’t mind his choice in politics or music. He wonders if the chef is going to make some of that caramelized condensed milk again. That was really good. Twelve hour plus days in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on a rusty, corroding oil platform. Not much to think about for a week except keeping everything running, staying alive, fresh warm caramel and your wife’s voice on the phone when you call her at bedtime. They announce their helicopter is boarding he lifts his duffle, climbs up the steps of the helicopter. Finds a seat, straps himself in and says a prayer for leaving land.
Human beings have experienced separation at the mercy of the sea for millennia. Life requires that parents divide their time between making a living for their children and being present with those children, that explorers and innovators leave behind their homes and those who love them for a time in order to do what they must do. Life is a constant alternation between traveling and putting down roots. It is in planting roots and becoming separate from them that we find out who we are and what is important to us.
Offshore reminds me very much of a famous French song by Faure, called Les Berceaux, or The Cradles. You can watch a video of that song below, complete with translation. It’s amazing to think how little some things change, even as technology creates new experiences.