Recorded Visions

Dreaming forward and back.

If memory is the first fiction, then so is the history of a group. As a group evolves, so will its collective chronicle of becoming, but the process is as fraught as any reconstruction. If history is a cathedral and facts are the stones, then it’s worth considering that all somebody can do before a complete building with a single stone is throw it or sit on it. If all that happens in any reframing effort is the collection of a pile of new stones, you may end up with a whole lot of broken glass and all of us outside. But if people are challenged to build with them, to create new architecture, new gathering places, new halls of worship and dreaming, transcendence and offering, then what? Unless someone is feeding the dreamers from the same table as the builders, planners, architects, masons, and those tasked with moving each stone, a cohesive vision won’t emerge. Imagination is no luxury, but a life skill, and as critical in times of flux as any other preparation: for famine, attack, natural disaster, invasion. No group who makes outcasts of its dreamers can endure.

***

I first explored Tamin Ansary’s insight, “History is composed of facts the way that a cathedral is composed of bricks . . . But the bricks are not the cathedral,” in an earlier post, “Cathedral.”

The Living, Remember

What we stash to save beyond selves.

This morning, I read that chickadees make it through the winter by eating through a stash of eighty-thousand seeds they hide during warmer months, and if I put my keys anywhere but on the ledge by the door I will be at a loss and probably late. 

There are different categories of memory, say cognitive ecologists, and this one is spatial. What is mine, then? It’s not spatial, nor is it numbers. I rarely have the right fact at the right time. Impressions, I have plenty. I remember the images, sounds, and sudden sensations that stopped me. The lilting laughs and mannerisms of departed loves, near-strangers included, the dimples in a former toddler’s chubby hand. I return to these only to be stopped again and again. From a lens of individual survival, this penchant toward becoming increasingly porous with each piercing recollection seems the opposite of useful.

It’s no effort at all to harvest cache upon cache of opportunities to grieve, to return to what is lost, and I’m hardly alone in this. Perhaps this is the best adaptation of our species, this enforced stoppage, this innate entanglement. 

We make music after death to sustain the living, our elegies like bridges reaching for the land of the dead, so that we are never fully in ourselves, but always reaching, from and to how many points? None of which seems essential for any one of us, and all of which complicate and tighten the weave of this larger forever netting, holding us, somewhere beyond the spatial Here to hear something else.

Because of this, any one of us can say to another, Remember This, and by this sacrament maintain some subtle evasion beyond death’s inevitable hand. It will get us each when the last winter comes, but not before we go around stashing parts of ourselves away in the living, remember.

The Alumni News

Reading the honorable dispatch.

See this tree-lined walk, snow framed beneath the red brick. Notice the tower, the arch. Hear this presidential address: honor society, an array of diversity, equity, inclusion. Notice the right words in appropriate places. 

Want evidence? See this picture! Don’t miss our greens, our greenhouse, and We Are Going Green. Dedication! Concert! Debut! 

We cut the ribbon. A trio of new sculptures in the courtyard. The renovated center. Award, fellowship, title, win! Our success rates. Recognition, honor, inaugural event! Homecoming.

Last, in memoriam. Here are the latest dead. See their photos, all smiling. Notice their honors, connections, advanced degrees. They are survived. We remember. Dates. Pay no attention to the missing. We look forward to an exciting year ahead!

I remember the tower bell, how it would sound on the hour, the expansive flood of its knell. Impossible, even if you kept talking through it, not to notice the suggestion, at least, of what was infinitely more vast and ancient than the oldest historic building––in the air we gushed, the land we rushed over, the silences between each proclamation.

*

Inspired by the pile of mail I’ve been meaning to go through, in which I found my alumni magazine. It’s a beautiful publication for a wonderful school, but I always feel a little funny about opening it, probably for reasons similar to the trepidation one feels around reunions. One’s life never quite fits into an update. One never quite feels quite “arrived” enough. Sensing that I must not be alone in this discomfort, I decided to read it here.

Dirt

What found us in our play.

We were not sanitary children, somersaulting in soil, clods of mycelium matting our manes. Our hands, handling humus, were the opposite of pure. We marveled in the muck of it, colluding with colluvium. Saturated with smut, we loamed our elements, barnyard babes absolved by absorption in the dirt that knew us, holding tight.

Courage

How a body might hold.

To resist, when the cold blood runs, the pull of despair, and keep the body from flight even as retreat remains a perpetual dream. To hold here, ever weary of the ministrations of empire, of duty, of daily calamity, and rise to the work, as Aurelius put it, of a human being.

So much of this is learning, and so much of learning is holding the gaze on what is intolerable until some new sense can grow to accommodate what the old will not bear. Only to have to repeat the process with each new stretch of the living. James called it standing the universe.

I think of my grandmother in her garden, in the months and years after she buried a daughter, with eight others still living and a son, with their endless need amid innumerable dangers, somehow finding it in herself to care that the beetles not get to the leaves of her rose bushes, and how she would keep watch even in the morning when the sky was still blue-black, over them from the porch where she held her ground, even at the beginning of everything relentlessly over again. 

Snows

Blooming in ice.

Ice crystal showers and no exact matches between them, foot after foot, later to water, then vapor. I love the story of Wilson Alwyn Bentley, dubbed Snowflake Bentley, who caught them on camera, against black velvet before they melted. He did it so well that no one else bothered for most of the next century. Ice flowers, he called them.

I remember making igloos big enough for one child to crawl in, belly-flat, and crouching, once inside, in the center room, looking out like a mole, surrounded by the display of the most recent storm, kneeling. How I would wait, taking it in, cupping tiny piles to my mouth, sneaking bites of pure winter, the quickening of my chest as it melted through me. I would repeat this ritual over and again, trying to hold it, holding still in the igloo, knowing it wouldn’t last.

I wanted to fall to my knees, Bentley said, of his first witness to what he called those tiny miracles, through his lens. Instead, he kept at it. He wanted others to be able to see, too.

First Friends

A tribute to original wonders.

Mine were a pair, and they were light: a couple of living spheres. I gave them names, told my mother. They had genders; I don’t know if I assigned these, or they came with. K. was amber and a boy. P., magenta, was a girl. They had the same shape, the same transparency.

They seemed older; they came from the same place. I never knew its name. I guess I was the third wheel, but they were accommodating on their visits, and when they left me I went on with other things, same as I had in their presence, but with less conversation.

Later, I thought maybe it was a mistake to tell my mother, because once I heard her telling someone else, as mothers do. She said their names and called them imaginary. 

I knew the word, a dividing line between what could and would not be. I was four, and they never returned. I accepted the fault as my own. Later, I read that a human is the only creature that doesn’t know what it is, and by then the words had weight. I also read that a friend will return you to yourself, and I think that before these first friends were gone, I knew what I was.

What would I call the time that began with their leaving?

I would not name it. I knew it was mine. This was my first lesson in distance. 

For All Times

Considering the movement in these moments.

You’ve been a cane-wielding cartoon old man, white beard down to your knees; a bloody tyrant, horned and masked, coming to ravage every beloved. Then, in the next scene, a healer: white linen, salves, and herbs, sometimes in the costume of a nurse of the first influenza, the first world war. The bard posed you with a scythe, the dark reaper poised, and had his lovers profess refusal to be your fool.

Then you’re a river. We build our settlements near you, travel over washing, reviving, bathing, and blessing one another by your body. Then, when the great storms come, you rinse us away––and yet, when we come to, there we are, still within and among your waters, carrying their currents in our cells. Someone suggests you are an illusion, maybe they meant elusive, but the idea adds much to our sense of the scope and reach of what we touch and then create, our tools one part memory and another part dream, and the last must be need. But for what? Is this nourishment you bring, or is it more like shelter against what we are not ready for––yet?

If you are long like a ribbon or a road, why can’t we know this about you in a moment? There’s no duration in the present, but we’ll measure rest as well as motion, our now both a beginning and an end, and in your holy geography we continue to meet, dancing in the second line with the saints, and we the once and future ancients, spinning the rhythms of your forever reception. 

Velocity Over Time

A diptych of amusement park memories and plutonium.

This morning over coffee, I came across a mention that on this day in 1926, the Tilt-a-Whirl trademark was registered. This was my favorite ride, and I like to be exact about these sorts of things, so I did a quick search to verify, and learned that also on this day (in 1940), scientists at UC Berkley discovered plutonium.

I did not discover the Tilt-a-Whirl until I was about nine or ten. Before then, there were other favorites, and they were never the roller coasters, which induced a terror that seemed a bit too true-to-life. The Spider was among these. It had eight arms extending from a segmented hub, a spinning pod at the end of each arm. I sat in a pod and when the ride began, it spun while the arm moved up and down in its rotation. It was an enjoyable spin, dreamy and relaxing, inducing bubbly rushes on the faster parts, but rarely terror.

My first time on The Spider was during an annual family trip to Playland, and my father was waiting just beyond the gate. My mother had taken my younger sisters to Kiddie Land. The year before, we had all gone together on the Kiddie Coaster, my father and my younger sister and I all in the same car while my mom stood with my baby sister. Now I was alone in the shiny black pod. It was my first ride outside Kiddie Land. 

Until that day, I had never looked at my standing father from such a height. How strange it was to be in the sky like that, suspended by metal arms encased in plastic. He looked far away in his white shorts and pastel t-shirt, steadfast with his tired smile. My sisters would have been moving between the carousel, the bumper cars, the gentle Kiddie Coaster, and the little train. I was suddenly alone on the dark side of the park in the shadow of the monster roller coaster. I don’t remember its name as I had no interest, ever, in being its passenger.

The ride started. There was no getting off. This was, after all, what I had wanted. I gripped the bar in front of me and shut my eyes and waited for it to end. I vowed not to not get into one of my thinking moods that would always confuse and worry the adults. I had, by then, heard more than enough concerned whispers about my episodes of seriousness. I didn’t have the words to explain the way I would suddenly feel gripped by some terrible momentum, but I was grateful that no one was pushing the roller coaster issue. I was supposed to be having a good time.

It was the mid-80s in suburban America. War, I was told, was over, and progress was a nonstop ride from here on out, and the cycles of history were ending, and it was up and up and up from here. One was expected to celebrate the good fortune of having arrived right in time for the happy ending to the march of progress. Pretty soon, they told us, we’d all be zipping around in flying cars. I wanted to believe, but there was this constant knot of tension aggravated by the vertigo of momentum. I had been listening and keeping watch, and there were more than a few things that didn’t add up. 

Plutonium, by the way, has more uses than some would think, the government-sponsored Nuclear Regulatory Commission website announces (“Protecting People and the Environment”). It creates energy and powers space missions and even human hearts when needed.  At the end of the page, almost as an afterthought, it is admitted that plutonium production is controversial. It can, the text acknowledges, be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The syntactic effect is that of an afterthought.

No one was allowed to talk about the discovery of plutonium when it happened on this day in 1940. The project was top secret, and it was going to be revealed in an act that would end not just the second great war but would, its champions announced, forestall future wars. It was the dawn of a new era, and we were in it.  

My first ride on The Spider was a terrible ride. After, I would claim it was my favorite, at least until I discovered the Tilt-a-Whirl a few years later. There was no way to explain the terror of being suspended alone in mid-air without seeming ungrateful for the care that had gone into bringing me there. My father, a giant by all prior standards, suddenly looked small and ordinary––quaint, even. 

It’s like this with disasters, isn’t it? The original terror always looks archaic in hindsight. It’s almost impossible to recollect it without shaking heads in disbelief at the idea that it was once possible to be so suddenly and irrevocably shocked, that there was––once upon a time––a time before the solid things were replaced with their pictures, when there were fortresses still left to crumble.  

Seen and Unseen

When the saints come marching in.

The Lives of the Saints is a book that captured my childhood imagination, perhaps because it reads like a catalogue of horrific challenges and mystical superpowers. Opening the illustrated version felt somewhat transgressive, like indulging in an arcane comic book. I first found it in the rectory waiting room while I waited for my grandparents, and again in the home of the sisters, where we brought ice cream and visited and sometimes attended midday mass in the chapel. It was the 1980s, and I was ignorant of most of what the adults of my parents’ generation seemed to discuss. What was it? I don’t remember, only that their conversations and general absorptions seemed tied to being in the world in ways that didn’t make much sense to me, and the inscrutability of adult life tended to make me anxious when I considered that one day I would have to become one. 

I was aware that I was a hopeless sinner, guilty of fighting with my sisters and of gluttony around Halloween candy and holiday desserts, and of wondering, during the high point of a Mass, whether my grandparents would be moved to make a stop at the deli on Post Road after church, visions of poppyseed buns dancing in my head when it should have been the mystery of transubstantiation of the body and blood.  It was doubtful I had any of the merits of a saint, and yet their strangeness made more sense to me than what passed for normalcy.

The saints, as I read them, tended toward singular obsessions: Francis with his poverty and love of creatures, Bernadette with her daily visits to the water at Lourdes, Eustachius who became transfixed by a vision of the savior in the antlers of a deer. I was awed by, and felt oddly familiar with, their various intensities, and with how they tended to give themselves over to visions that ran parallel to this world while being apart from what was generally taken to be real. These were my people, I thought, even though, given my accumulation of sin, I knew I had no right. But I didn’t get the impression that any of these saints spent much time worrying about sins. They were too busy with their visions and singular obsessions, so it seemed possible that if we met, they would welcome me into their community of oddball misfits. 

To mark the occasion, I opened my old copy this morning. I made the grave mistake, when I found it used on amazon a few years ago, of neglecting to specify the illustrated version, so my stodgy copy bears little resemblance to the book of wonders I remember. My point, as it often is when I am looking for these Breadcrumbs, was to gather what phrases seemed useful, regarding the celebrations that mark All Saints and All Souls Day. Here’s what I found:

For the martyrs whose names are not recorded, and the children lost in innocence, for those who died in a state of grace known only to them and the angels who carried them home, who remembered and held us in their intercessions, and for all the souls, that they may be loosed. Let us bear in mind the dead, holding them in our earnest intentions. Remember.