"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Mind of God

"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?
-- every, every minute?"

This is the question Emily Webb asks in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, when she comes back from the underworld to visit Grover's Corners and sees that all the living people are too busy about the minutiae of the day even to make eye contact with the loved ones right around them.

I chose Emily's question as the header for my life-is-just-so-daily blog, The Quotidian Kit, because it so accurately captures the sense of dailyness that I want to convey in those every-other-day-or-so entries. (Please visit: www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com)

My friends and I fell in love with Our Town when it was produced by our highschool drama club in 1973, and my twin brother Bruce played the part of George Gibbs. One of our favorite scenes occurs at the end of Act I, when Rebecca (George's little sister, played by my friend Joni), reads out the mind-boggling address that she saw on an envelope:

Jane Crofut
The Crofut Farm
Grover's Corners
Sutton County
New Hampshire
United States of America
Continent of North America
Western Hemisphere
The Earth
The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God

Suddenly in awe of our own cosmic identity, we spent a lot of time recopying this long address, inserting our own names and addresses, and passing our versions around to each other in geometry class. (Sorry, Mr. Anderson!) Not that any mysteries, either universal or local, were revealed; but it sort of felt that way.

In the recent novel, Octavian Nothing (see my commentary below, August 14, 2009), I encountered a hauntingly reminiscent passage, equally cosmic but rather more sinister. The young scholar Octavian is somewhat intimidated by his tutor who has him stand against the wall in a very dark room on a dark summer night:

The silence of the house was enormous.

He stood me with my back to the wall, one inch from the paneling. He stood next to me. We faced the same way. . . .

For a long while, we stared straight forwards, side by side,
in the empty room. . . .

"Do you feel it child?" he asked. "The wall is gone. Space is gone from behind us."

I could feel nothing.

He said, "All that is there now is the eye of God." He shivered. "The pupil is black, and as large as a world." (60 - 61)

The Eye of God. I wonder if that line should come before or after The Mind of God in the address sequence? It certainly shifts the reader's focus from the known to the unknown. I'm reminded again of Emily's descent to the afterlife, when she sees simultaneously the Dead, now her companions, as well as her own funeral, taking place back on Earth:

Live people don't understand , do they?

No, dear -- not very much.

They're sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they? I feel as though I knew them last a thousand years ago . . . (ellipses in original)

Similarly, in Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, the kindly Beasts look down from their planet and wonder about human beings:

How strange it is that they can't tell us what they themselves seem to know . . . And on their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space. . . . Aren't they lonely? (191)

So here we are, in our little boxes, unable to communicate very well; revolving about on our Mostly Harmless, Swiftly Tilting planet; transfixed by the black pupil of the Eye of God, large as the World, the Solar System, the Universe. Known, perhaps, even in our loneliness, to the Mind of God.

Mosaics at Crosby Station
Great Britain
The United Kingdom
The British Isles
The Western Hemisphere,
The Earth, The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God

Friday, August 14, 2009

Birds of Pray


Above: These 3 buildings at the Pier Head on the Mersey River are called the "Three Graces" of Liverpool. Look closely (above & left)for the mythical Liver Birds atop the Liver Building. As legend goes, these symbolic birds once haunted the local shoreline, guarding the waterfront and awaiting the safe return of seafarers.

(Pronunciation quirk: "Liver" rhymes with "diver" -- not with "giver" as in "Liverpool")

Not until recently would I have identified the image of a one - legged seagull as a recurring motif in literature, but a surprising reading coincidence has caused me to think otherwise.

Not long ago, I was reading volume one of M. T. Anderson's historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian has been brought from Africa as a child, in the 1700s, to participate in an elaborate American educational experiment, funded from England by an eccentric benefactor. When this Lord Cheldthorpe dies, his nephew, the new "Lord Cheldthorpe of the New Creation," as he insists on being called, travels to America to visit the College of Lucidity.

Upon his arrival, he reveals his ignorance of the natural world with an urgent question for his hosts. Speaking of himself in third person, he elaborates: "One had, a kind of pet aboard the ship, a one-legged seagull. One was charmed by its sense of balance when the ship rocked. Would there be a way that one could attract it to this house? It specifically?"

Rather than treating Cheldthorpe's request as ridiculous, the polite and beholden American scientists attempt to let the Lord down easy, speculating, "Were we to . . . spread garbage upon the roof, we would likely attract quite a number of . . . seagulls . . . but there is no guarantee . . . My Lord . . . that one should be your especial friend" (ellipses in original, 80).

The seagull comes to represent those who must suffer from Cheldthorpe's cruelty and his arrogant belief that the world revolves around him. His treatment of the gull prefigures the patronizing harshness in store for his unwitting subjects: "We tried to knock it over by throwing lead-shot and failed. . . . The bird was nimble. . . . Could one attract it to one's side, one could keep it upon one's shoulder, and call it Hector, and it would be a fine, fine thing" (my ellipses, 80 - 81).

"Indeed, My Lord," concludes the host. "My very thought. . . . Perhaps you might give me some time to consider a solution?" (80 - 81). In fact, the issue never arises again, and I probably wouldn't have given it much more thought if I had not soon encountered a similar image in Gladys Reunited: A Personal American Journey. In this memoir, British / Danish writer Sandi Toksvig describes her travels across the United States, as she catches up with old friends that she knew years before when attending school in America.

She starts on the East Coast and finds herself at last in California, standing on the deck of the Queen Mary, reminiscing of the trips she took on it years before, back and forth across the Atlantic with her parents. As she recalls fondly, though sadly, a final conversation she shared with her father, she spies a seagull who seems to embody both her grief and her determination. But this is not just any seagull:

"Then, on the farthest railing I saw a one-legged gull standing watching me. What could happen, I wondered, to a gull that might cause it to lose a foot? Did it affect take-offs and landings? What did the other gulls think? Was the one-legged fellow an object of gull ridicule? Did all gulls really come from California?" (299)

A seagull with one leg? I had to stop and think a minute. Oh yes, Octavian Nothing and crazy Lord Cheldthorpe a week or so before. Two one-legged seagulls in two weeks? And in two books so widely differing from each other. What's the odds?

Of course the quintessential seagull, that "one-in-a-million bird" who taught us the meaning of life back in 1970 is Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One leg? Broken wing? Jonathan knows how to overcome all such earthly stumbling blocks, how to achieve freedom and perfection:
"Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don't you think we might see other once or twice?" (61, 87).