I didn’t have time this month to write my usual essay. I might have gotten it done if I’d forsaken sleep and sanity, but this month a different voice prevailed. It asked of me the courage to acknowledge that I have limits, too; that denying myself in the service of sharing myself isn’t the measure of a wise man, but a fool.
I was reminded, too, that for years I’ve been struggling to find enough time to be a writer and an editor and a husband and a father and a friend, and also to find the time to step away from those roles into a deeper, more intimate communion with myself.
I took a look at what I was writing a decade ago. My style is different — as the pieces reprinted here attest — but the concerns and passions are much the same. What is it, over time, that really changes? Who is it, across the years, who asks?
I start the day with coffee again. Or did I start it when I opened my eyes? When I stopped dreaming? When my daughter started her day, and began to cry? My wife is out of bed and across the room in one fluid motion, returning with Mara in her arms, and the three of us lie in the bed Mara was born in, just a year ago. Not a bed, really, just a foam mattress on the floor — but our bed, as this house is our home, these movements a morning, these days a life, our lives the pivot of creation, turning the raw stuff of the cosmos into a bed, a home.
Days, weeks, months. Seasonal rhythms. False starts. Our temporal boundaries. “There’s not enough time,” said a friend, and I wrote her, “time for what?” and she answered:
. . . for my being to learn, to make organic, to cohere, to finally be grace, with poems an act of that grace, of my cells’ will to form, and reverence for beauty. . . . I am “anxious” for wholeness, for time to evolve — aware that it takes stillness and dream. Rilke had above his desk the single word “WAIT.” That word, in that context, has quieted me often. . . .
Her letter, written six months ago, I’ve not had time to answer. My father, on his deathbed, said we’d not had time enough together. And if I muse, in my fashion, about the lifetime we’ve shared through eternity, does that make the moment less fleeting or more eternal? “Time,” it’s written on the bathroom wall, “is an illusion perpetrated by the manufacturers of space.”
There’s no contradiction, only time making it seem so, as we bend eternity to the time of our lives: something to look forward to, or back upon. The day I discovered that, I took off my wristwatch and haven’t worn one since. But I cannot part with time.
Light takes 545 years to reach us from the star Rigel, Orion’s “right foot.” Which means tonight’s “star” began its journey forty-one years before the birth, in 1432, of Copernicus, who taught us the Earth is not the center of the universe, but a tiny planet circling a second-rate star — from which, we learned later, it takes a mere eight minutes for light to reach us.
And how long does it take the light shining in her eyes to reach mine? And how long for this page to turn brown? And why are both of us smiling? Don’t we know our time — our allotted years — is running out? And when our stories are over, will we find heaven between Pluto and the stars? Will this page become ashes and soil, perhaps another tree? I am scratching on bark, running my fingers along the rough length of the planet’s memory. I am my own roots seeking a liquid past, no cup of coffee but the ocean of completion, and I thirst for the time to enjoy it.
But what urgencies! Alarm clocks up and down the spine of my years: romance, and misery, and challenge to boil the blood. I am running out these hours like a man condemned to live them. But life is eternal, sings the wind; everlasting, whispers the rain. My own tongue says it all, and is dry before eternity.
Now, my daughter learns to stand on her own two feet, to walk toward her desire, soon to talk. To lie? Will she be that different? Less time-bound, which is to say less fearful and human? I wish her the best, which is to say her balance at the edge of her own precipice, her own two feet, and the parched throat that will lean her toward the sea. I’ll teach her to tell time, if she wants me to.
New Year’s Day.
No television or newspaper to remind me of the world outside. No news-of-the-year in review. I can tell myself better lies than that. 1977. Seven years to 1984. Time enough for our bodies to regenerate themselves, for all our cells to die and be reborn.
Time, and its mysterious parallels; its fist upon the door. Look at the clock. We have an appointment to keep — the nation no less than the planet, even if, as a nation, we imagined our birthright to be all of time and space, frontier without end, green silks and warm winds —
and as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away and gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face-to-face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
For the last time in history? We exaggerate our discoveries, and most beautifully. America is the tallest tale since Atlantis, but hardly man’s last frontier. If we celebrate ourselves that way, we will be brought down. The sounds of drums and piccolos deafen us to time’s deep sea roar. But nations, like men, live the consequences of their deeds.
Cancer reminds us; it is the lesson, written in flesh, of partial selfhood, of organs declaring their independence from the whole. When my father lay dying of cancer, I sat vigil beside him, in a hospital room ten stories from the Earth’s warm body, and its harmonies of song. His song, after sixty years, was chill and bitter. He was a failure in his own eyes, having lost me to a different drummer. Were our rhythms so different after all? I drink coffee as I write this. What have I learned? To set my veins afire? The struck match of self is the light I write by; the air dances round the flame. I hear musics of traffic and heartbeat and love’s old bones creaking up the stairs — and back of that, the engines of sleep; and back of it all, the furnace of a star, our generous sun, bathing us with light.
Words mirror themselves, forever repeating themselves, and invisible worlds dance between the lines, out to where you hold this page, and touch me, and marry these words to meaning — while scientists plumb the mysteries of telepathy, and presidents the mysteries of power, and America peers at itself in the mirror, one eye jewel and one darkness.
I was asked by a friend last week what the Sixties meant. As we near the end of the Seventies, I’ll hazard an answer. We learned, in the Sixties, how far shouting would take us — our politics were a shout; our drugs a yell piercing the galleries of mind; even love became confused with bodies screaming for union — and it took us far, to where we had not been before. Yet we learn to go farther with a whisper: there is no argument, nothing to prove. Everywhere, we see ourselves reflected.
This magazine, like our lives, is a dream carved from a dream, and its dream landscape, these pages, is the living symbol of our creative power. It lives, and dies, within you. Kissed by the sun, axed in greed and necessity, sent through channels, delivered by miracle — a tree takes root. It speaks to your old wound, and to your future. We are angels, in the flush of adolescence — slightly out of tune, vaguely beautiful. We are a sheaf of broken mirrors. Leaf through these pages for a glimpse of yourself. What you see reflected is a world dying and another being born; we straddle them; we bridge dimensions. If The New York Times mirrors the third, what shall we call this? But let no names rise between us. We are not spiritual, or political, or literary. No more than you.
We are journeyers together, ocean faces reflecting our dark and tangled love, our dream of community twisting in the wind. Yet if love and community were watery commandments, and a thousand times we took the shallow for the deep, we’re a thousand disappointments closer to the distant shore, which is no fool’s landing. We will make it, or go down trying. What’s left, in a world turned to water? The hungry weep; the Earth sobs, too. Every month, we read of another quake. The impossible heat of the planet’s love brings us to our knees in adoration, or terror. We will learn to acknowledge our common bond, or we will perish. It is simple and terrible: like prison and empty bellies; like flood and fire; like crouching in the darkness; like spreading wings.