Monthly Archives: July 2018

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.  

False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.

Final Leg

Travel is a form of education.  You won’t get college credit for it (unless some administrative footwork is involved), but it is a means of learning.  One of the things you pick up flying coast-to-coast is how exhausting a day on a jet can be.  Quite apart from jet lag itself, the weariness of occupying your minuscule allotted space in a pressurized cabin can be intense.  And like ocean travel by ship, you have to dock at a distance to use smaller and smaller forms of transportation to reach your destination until at last you walk inside.  This was the first year that such a trip ended by returning to a house rather than somebody else’s rental unit.  It’s an odd feeling.

Work starts again tomorrow, and since I’ve been pretty much unplugged for an entire week, I know chaos awaits.  I also have the task of learning what has happened in this off-kilter world for the last week.  And then I have to make an inventory of the books that were ruined in our own personal Noah event just days before our flight.  The changing of scenes feels rather like a jump-cut in a movie.  Suddenly you find yourself somewhere different, with circumstances that have their own set of parameters.  Vacation time, in a sense, is like a dream sequence.  None of the episodes from back home can reach your sleep-addled mind.  And then you wake up.  Bills are due.  The lawn wants cutting.  The unpacking must continue.

For all that, it feels as if something transcendent happened.  Like Elijah being whisked away in his own personal whirlwind, I was on a plane that took me to a different plane of existence.  A place where no matter what decisions were made the outcome would be pleasant.  Coming home involves what theologians like to call “metanoia,” a sense of transformation—memories that give you strength to carry on the quotidian tasks that make up the vast bulk of our lives.  Lakes in the mountains are all fine and good, but society demands its pound of flesh, and the way they get it is through productive employment.  Tomorrow it’s back to work, a chance to test just how successful the metanoia might’ve been.  This is the reason we traveled on a Saturday, for the sabbath should be a day of rest.  No one knows where that whirlwind set Elijah down, but it’s virtually certain that he had plenty to do once he got there.

Hidden Origins

This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.  Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.  Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.  Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.  I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.  That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.  Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.  While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.

Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.  Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.  Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.  Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.  Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.  Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?  It’s easy to believe in our myths here.  Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.  Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.

Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?  (Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)  It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.  Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.  In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.  No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.  Listening is much easier with no distractions.  These woods are vast.  Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.  Beyond these borders, who knows?  Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.  Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.  The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.

Lions, Bears, and Caribou

The place I’ve been spending this week is the habitat of grizzly bears, caribou, and mountain lions, none of which I’ve ever seen here.  Two of these species view us as potential, if troublesome, prey.  In actuality, even here in the wilderness we’ve made the human presence felt and wildlife sightings are somewhat rare.  I saw more deer in New Jersey than I’ve ever seen here.  Kind of makes you wonder about the human reputation among other creatures.  We like to look at them in zoos, but we don’t see them in their natural surroundings.  I like to think that it’s because they have so much space out here to wander—we see plenty of evidence of moose, for example, without an antler or dewlap making an appearance.

The environment, as created in our won image, has become somewhat sterile.  Kind of the angry, old white man’s view of government.  One color is all you need.  Variety is too challenging, and threatening.  We’ve driven the wolves to extinction around here, so you won’t see any of those.  Won’t hear their plaintive howls on a moonlit night.  You’ll see motorboats aplenty, and cars with fancy technology, and airplanes buzzing overhead.  This will have to do for wilderness, since other places are fast developing into surveillance states to protect the rich men’s money.  Wilderness means nothing to such people, unless it can be exploited for personal gain.  The thing is, once it’s gone for them, it’s gone for us all.  I found a sardine tin shining like silver in the silt on the bottom of our lake.  Our fingerprints are everywhere.

The problem isn’t new.  Even some monks in late antiquity found that when they headed into the desert for heroic feats of spirituality, they were followed by the curious.  Crowds would sometimes gather to watch them being holy.  Would that break a saint’s concentration?  Do I even need to ask?  The forest service asks us to stay on the trails.  The trails are well trod.  Out of sight, but never far from mind are the bears and cougars.  We’ve driven them out of our path and then congratulate ourselves on becoming the top predators.  Once the beasts are gone we turn our instincts on our fellow humans.  To flush them out into the open we must tame their wildness. And when it’s all gone the only rule will be, in this distorted vision, that of rich white men.  An angry grizzly bear would be far more congenial.

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Traveling Unplugged

Those who pay close attention, or who have nothing better to do in July, may have noticed that I missed a day posting on this blog on Saturday.  That hasn’t happened for a few years now.  I think maybe I ‘m growing up.  Or learning to resist.  Saturday was a travel day—the first I had to make from Pennsylvania, back to Newark in order to fly to Washington state and drive a few hours to the lake.  All in all, it turned out to be a long day in which I didn’t even notice that I was unplugged.  I had a book that I read along the way.  Although it’s against my religion—(call it Moby)—(but I jest)—I even fell into a cat nap or two on the plane.  I didn’t have a window seat and strangers don’t like you staring in their direction for five hours at a time.

Upon awaking, eyes refusing at first to work in tandem, in the chill mountain air, I realized I’d spent the entire day off the internet.  We had to pull out at 2:30 a.m. to meet TSA requirements, and you have to pay for the privilege of connecting to the web in airports and on board jets.  I’ve become so accustomed to being wired that I feel I have to explain why I wasn’t able to post a few thoughts when circumstances were so adverse to getting tangled in the world-wide web.  Yes, it still has a few gaps where one might buzz through without being caught.

It was remarkably freeing to be unplugged.  I believe Morpheus may be correct that they want us to believe reality is otherwise.  I feel guilty for not checking email manically.  What if someone requires something right away?  Some sage response to a communique that just can’t wait until I’m back from vacation?  Some reason that I must ask to be inserted back into the matrix if just for a few moments, to hit the reply button?  We’ve perhaps been exposed to what The Incredibles 2 calls the Screenslaver, the force that draws our gaze from even the beauty of a mountain lake to the device in our hand, whining for attention.  We have wifi here, of course, for the fantasy of living raw is sustainable for only a few hours at a time.  Reality, as you know if you’re reading this, is electronic.  But until I have to reinsert myself at the cost of my soul, I think I’m going to take a dip in the lake.