Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Human Dilemma

In the prideful insecurity and ignorance of my youth, I registered, in my very first semester of college, for an upper-level history course.  An honors upper level history course.  I was not alone in this risky venture, but was accompanied by my friend-since-sixth-grade, Lucy Lee.  For the next four months, the two of us spent our Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8:15 to 9:30 under the tutelage of Marcile Taylor, whose lectures we wrote down word for word and took turns transcribing so that they might be memorized in hopes of passing the final exam.
Two totally unrelated facts learned from that semester burrowed so far into my brain that 39 years later they float to the surface on a regular basis at unexpected moments and, often, a propos of absolutely nothing.  First:  The single event that drove the settlement of the American West was the invention of barbed wire.  And second: The single question around which the colonization of New England by religious refugees was conceived and carried out was the issue of how to live in the world without being of the world. 
The invention of barbed wire tidbit has rarely been of any practical use, not even in any of the trivia competitions in which I have distinguished myself over the years.  On the other hand, the Puritan dilemma, as it came to be called, remains an unresolved quandary, an ever-present irritant, a never-to-be-lined-through item on the to-do list.  And, to be honest, after all this time it nags at me not with regard to religious affiliation or practice, but rather as a question of how one manages to approach the world with an attitude of appreciation rather than consumption, how to experience intimacy with creation without experiencing the need to own it, how to inhabit a specific set of geographic coordinates at a specific moment in time in such a way as to know both without being changed by either.
Some days I am more barbed wire than thoughtful Puritan.  Some days I show up at the office locked and loaded with a tale about the ineptitude of the food service folks at my drive-through of choice or the cluelessness of other drivers in the line.   Some days I bounce hard across the washed-out places on Settlement Road and wonder why I’m not a priority for the road crew.  Some nights I stand on the deck staring at stars that look like the cheapest of rhinestones and want to throw what is left of my patience and my heart into the darkness that I am quite convinced is a bottomless pit.
But there are other days.  Days on which I find myself mesmerized by the sight of a two-year-old in a seersucker bubble suit patting her fat hands together and bobbing her head so fast that her blonde curls can hardly keep up. Days on which I notice that the dress I am wearing is the exact color of the cornfield reflecting the early morning sun and I wonder if Sherwin-Williams has a shade called June Corn and declare out loud that, if it doesn’t, it most certainly should.  Nights on which I stand at the edge of the ocean, feel the waves carve away the sand beneath my feet, and hear my brain, my pulse, my heartbeat respond to their shush-shush-shush’ing like voices to a tuning fork.
Not long ago I got to watch Jackson as he got his first look at the ocean.  Prepared to cajole and comfort, his mother and I stood on either side as I set his bare feet on the sand.  He opened his mouth in a smile and ran toward the water, arms spread wide.  The waves slapped at his ankles and he skittered away laughing.  As they receded, he ran back out to meet them, to replay the slapping and skittering and laughing over and over again, all the while with his arms held out as far as they would go.
The Puritan dilemma was not resolved by the Puritans.  It will not be resolved by the Methodists or the Presbyterians or the Druids or the atheists.  Perhaps it is not even a dilemma.  Perhaps it is the exact opposite.  Perhaps it is a miracle – an amazing, astonishing, unexplainable condition that is still identifiably human, like bipedalism and the capacity for language, a condition that defies all known physical laws by demonstrating that everything that is can be held with arms that are open.

Copyright 2013

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Typographical Truth

The room was at the end of the hall.  Its large windows looked out over an empty field where, during fire drills, we stood at bored attention in long lines awaiting the all clear. Its rows of desks were topped with heavy black Royal and Olivetti manual typewriters and worn copies of the Gregg Typing Manual that opened from the bottom rather than the side like ordinary books.  The object, Mrs. Reba Clements explained to us on the first day of seventh grade, was not just speed, but speed along with accuracy.

At the end of the timed tests that eventually became as competitive as the sprints and free throws in P.E., we were required to proofread what we’d typed and count the errors, circle each one so that it stood out like one of the blemishes that had started to appear on our adolescent faces.  Five or more errors and the words-per-minute was simply irrelevant.  
The English language, the placement of the letters of the alphabet on the QWERTY keyboard, and the unpredictability of the human mind inevitably and frequently create situations in which it is not only easy, but probable, that the rapidly twitching muscles in a typist’s fingers will turn was into saw and heart into heard.  Or sacred into scared.
Last year, within the twelve weeks that span my birthday and Christmas, three friends, all unbeknownst to each other, gave me the same gift: an hourglass.  They are each about eight inches tall and contain sand that is the pale aqua color that I prefer over all others.  I tried placing them together at first, but the concentrated reminder of life’s ephemeral nature (“Like sands through the hourglass ...”) was too much for me, so, like misbehaving children, I separated them.  One is now in town at the office as a reminder that what I do there is not who I am.  One is in the study at Sandhill, a functional prod to commit measurable time to the words that keep me alive.  The third is on a chest in my bedroom next to a jar of seashells and a candle, a focal point where, at the end of the day or first thing in the morning, all the rays of thought and sensation and emotion can converge in a place of calm .
Last night, as I walked into the bedroom (Was it to empty my gym bag or put up linens or take out my contacts?), my peripheral vision registered something out of place.  I stopped.  Lamplight left the corners dull, but I could see that no photograph had been knocked over on its table, the door to the deck had not been blown open.  All appeared to be in order.
I turned back to what I’d been doing and that’s when I saw it: the hourglass, about a quarter of its sand still in the upper chamber and not falling.  Time had, literally, stopped.
In the one to two milliseconds it took my brain to register the image and to relay back to my conscious self that, clearly, some object or force, most probably humidity, had acted upon the sand to impede its flow, my unconscious self, the one that is contained within, but not defined by that brain and 5'9" of bone and muscle and flesh, the one that sees things that cannot be imaged and knows things that cannot be articulated, had already experienced the startle and fear of the possibility that time really had stopped and processed that fear into the marvel of expectation of the what-next.  
What if there is only now now?  What if I am no longer moving inevitably away from what I have known and inescapably toward what I cannot know?  What if this – lamplight and the shimmer of new polish on my fingernails and the sounds of a baseball game on the television in the living room – is all there is?   I am, for a moment, allowed a glimpse of what it could be like if I did not live caught between the magnetic poles of yesterday and tomorrow, feeling the equally violent pull of both.  
I reach for the hourglass to dislodge the sand and am stopped.  Leave it there, I am told.  Leave it there and know what is possible.
I was always one of Mrs. Clement’s students who aimed for speed.  I pay more attention to accuracy now.  It takes more than a couple of errant key strokes to turn scared into sacred.

Copyright 2013