I must see that in every moment there is something imperishable.
Wind clatters in the dark trees. I try to go out into the clamorous black, each time climb the steps and return to this little room.
Can it be possible never to see again a man or a woman whom one has loved passionately? Will the world let that happen? Can such sweet, fierce energy dissipate into everyday and everyday?
We are seduced by the beauty of the veils never to look further. This is God’s camouflage. We must not let Him get away with it.
Old Ben surprised me by having literary ambitions. He knows everything there is to know about Kerouac. He came here to be famous, and ends up like me a janitor, though he is the chief janitor and I his single brave. An expert is one who loves, not one who collects initials after his name.
Ordered thirteen stamps on Tioga Street. The clerk nearly fainted with delight when I handed her exactly one dollar and four cents. Sometimes it is easy to do right.
Man frolicking with his son, holding him up to get a better look at him, lowering him to be kissed, holding him to himself as though there were no other way to get close enough. Lucky, lucky child. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I know because it wounds me so to think of it.
Among the weaknesses of good in its struggle against evil are patience and toleration. The staff poised above the serpent, hesitant, hoping it might change its scales.
The librarian has on her desk a cut-glass vase containing a single yellow camellia. I will return every day until the camellia is gone.
The syllables of anguish and of exultation are the same.
Read that certain peoples have words for “tamarind” or “coconut” but no generalized term for “tree.” Last night I heard in a lecture that a porpoise trained to protect swimmers from sharks will, if trained on a brown shark, attack and harry brown sharks but leave bull sharks alone. The brown and the bull are so closely kin, the lecturer said, that 95 percent of marine biologists can’t tell them apart. Whence arose our fascination for the generalized? It is convenient, but is it nevertheless (or therefore) a calamity?
Found a chickadee at roadside. I held him in my hand, thinking that God would show me a sign by bringing him back to life. Finally I lay him, warm from my hand but no more from his own blood, on a spruce bough. Came home weeping. I do these things to myself. The world has never said, David, make a miracle for us.
Mother in surgery today. I think, oddly, of her surrogates, the housekeepers we had at Goodview when she was first sick. There was Mrs. A., who kept a bottle in the boot chest in the utility room. She reminded me of a bowling pin. Father says that she was a superb cook but an incorrigible drunk. She cut herself terribly on the fan. There was Barbara, whom I remember with loathing. She was a brutal, truthless, evil woman with Andrews Sisters hair and invariable white blouses. She crammed sandwiches down my throat with her clammy hands when I was too slow at eating them, and locked me in the closet when she was having one of her headaches. She starved me if I hadn’t been obeying, and put clean dishes on the drain board to make it look like she had fed me and then washed the dishes. I hated her so much that it took me a while to warm up to anyone named Barbara, even my splendid aunt. I hated her so much that when she visited Mother once, I hid behind the couch and would not come out until she was gone. There was Mrs. H., fat and jolly, wearing the full-length, flowered apron suitable to grandmothers. My memories of her are vivid and varied. Once I pulled her chair out from under her when she was sitting down. I was acquiring a sense of humor, and I am glad that the reaction to that trick set it on a more acceptable course. She brought me goldfish. I rode along while father took her home at night, past Goodyear Plant 1 and the “dirty clean” smoke that I found fascinating. Her threat was baptism, which meant that if I didn’t behave she would stick my head under water, which she never did. She visited many years later and remarked, ambiguously, that I didn’t look like my father. There were the black women, Sarah and Pat. Sarah was a statuesque woman who wore vivid dresses, black covered with bright flowers and fruit. She gave one of these to Mother, who wears it till this day. Mother had to persuade her it was all right if they ate lunch together. I remember her as tall and very beautiful. Pat was last, strong, ugly, humorous. She endured my sister’s toilet training and one of my rambunctious periods with aplomb, drawing the line only at my pets. Mother imitated one of her great lines: “I declare, Marion, I’ll do anything for you or Mr. Gene or your family, but I will not go into that room with those lizards!” Mother served as a character witness at Pat’s divorce. The woman who provided these women from the Family Service Bureau visited us regularly, always wearing purple. She had a withered hand and taught me how to weave potholders. She was modestly famous around Akron at the time.
While I thought of those housekeepers, Mother died on an operating table in Cleveland. I do not know how to understand this.
Greyhound bus, between Ithaca and Rochester, heading west to see Mother lying in her coffin. My hand shakes. This will be unreadable. Bus filled with huge-eared Eastern Europeans.
Mother’s death surprised some, but not her and not me. I knew at Thanksgiving. I knew from the fear in my heart. I knew, when she was turned away from the hospital, it was to spare her for half a year more.
When I entered my bedroom I saw on my bed my little dog Pluto, newly stuffed and mended, whom I had not seen in the world of the living for thirteen years. There could not be a more eloquent and mysterious gesture of her love. I closed the door and wept bitterly, though not just in grief. I don’t know what I wept for. Just the strangeness of things. She had cleaned the house, provisioned us, made ready. The evening of her death I felt great peace. I knew. She is a bright angel and I cannot keep back the grief even with that sure and comfortable knowledge. She was a spirit among us. We knew her too little. I hope to have a perfect glimpse in time. Right now I am her little boy, and too sad to write anymore.
Mae came here after the funeral, went to Mother’s room, and began rooting through her dresser drawers. She found whatever it was she sought, for I saw her retreating, hands clasped over something, the grin of triumph on her face.
Twenty cars followed to Crown Hill. Three hundred six visitors at the funeral home. Forty-nine vases of flowers. The funeral director tells you these things, thinking they matter. He is right. They do matter.
My grandmother’s last sister Bea wept uncontrollably. Her sister — my Aunt Margaret — died three weeks ago. Bea sat with her hands over her face, saying, “All my sweethearts are leaving me.”
Knowing that she will never again come through any door, never again surprise me or be surprised by me, never turn a sentence awry, never mispronounce or ask directions from a prostitute or salvage a day through some grace unforeseen — that is the worst part of death.
Twice while sitting in the living room this morning I smelled Mother’s perfume.
Living days over and over, vowing on one day what habit repudiates the next. I do not know where to turn.
I am unhappy, yet somehow I know I am on the right path. How can this be?
I have been lonely all my life. Loneliness is the central fact of my life. I do not understand why this should be.
Sleety afternoon brought down the first skein of geese. I stood scanning the sky when they appeared, having received some sort of telepathy, or perhaps hearing them without consciousness. The clouds were low and the bodies of the geese within them were at once blurred and magnified. I shall choose my wife from the women who look up when the first ringing of geese comes to the air.
The throne of God: pure matter, matter concentrated, as that of a collapsed star. Why do we associate divinity with the ethereal? Why not the unimaginably material?
Park squirrel puffs and stamps, thinking I have some design on his pouchful of soggy acorns. Like some people, who believe their rancid little hoards to be the apple of the world’s eye. Envy makes our possessions meaningful.
Gratitude to the sparrows, who will stay with us through enormous winter.
To live, an artist must throw off excess. This includes paperwork, busywork — but social responsibility? Love? My personal streamlining begins with saying God when I mean God.
Too often justice is merely the failure of love.
A girl in black tights dancing in front of Discount Records to the music of Satie. Pure winter light. I want to find her and tell her, “Somebody remembers you. Somebody has written it all down.”
Let us not confuse infinity with oblivion.
Existence transcends the idea of existence.
The experience of the vision is the meaning of the vision.
We must become accustomed to the fact that there are no boundaries to our experience. Auschwitz and the Sistine Ceiling are unimaginable, and yet they happened.
David Bowie claims there has been a flying saucer crash and subsequent coverup near Akron, Ohio. A Martian could, in fact, walk down Main Street, protected by the citizens’ fear of admitting they see him.
Savage men excuse their savageries by saying, “One must choose.”
Love is like a man, growing lithe and strong, running a race he never wins.
An open mind can be a danger. I’ve spent so much of my energy considering the insights of others that I’ve little left for my own. My mind is an old rag stretched thin over too many pointy bones.
Walked late on streets where the Christmas lights yet burn. An old drunk came into my face and said, forlornly, “Tommy? Tommy?” There were birds singing in the dark.
The pain in me is the drawing in of unprofitable roots and tendrils. Sometimes I am an octopus, seizing at everything with greedy arms. Sometimes I am a shellfish, centered within, seamless, unopenable. Twice last night I was driven into the dark by wild fury, walking, walking, hoping there would be some fatal danger to whisk me away. The remembrance of despair paralyzes me when even despair is gone.
The beauty of the city permits us to forget it is the enemy.
Something in the gray slant of today’s rain made me remember when I was a boy at Betty Jane School, and we could go down to the custodian’s room and receive from him a canvas bag and a stick with a nail in the end, with which we could swagger across the playgrounds, spearing litter, helpful and proud at once. Sometimes we played British Bulldog, and I was seldom caught, not because of my prowess but because no one paid attention to me. Sometimes they’d declare the game over and begin a new one while I still stood uncaptured. But people talked to you if you had a nail stick and a canvas bag full of gum wrappers.
What is the world but a mirror God looks into?
Dream last night. A woman and I sing before a group of men and women in formal attire. We are singing in German. She goes first. Then I begin. I am a bass or on good days a baritone, but in the dream I am amazed to hear a clear, high tenor coming from my throat. I’m so enthralled with the sound of my own voice that I lose my place in the music, and begin improvising. At the end they praise me highly and accuse her of exactly my offense: butchering the German and abandoning the score. I am torn between confessing and letting it pass, wake before the decision is made.
The success of the day worries me. I have been consulted and deferred to, greeted with affection. This makes me anxious. Only in adversity is one in fighting trim.
Speak ill of the dead, for they have left you.
It is by denying the soul that we compel it to seek us.
I love red leaves more than I love art. This is a surprise to say.
Having discovered the wrong laws does not entitle us to declare that the universe is lawless.
I played the game where you twist the stem of an apple while reciting the alphabet, and the letter the stem breaks on is the initial of your lover. I went all the way through Z.
On Columbus Circle behind the library I saw a wonderful thing. A maple tree stood dark with winter leaves. When I approached, I saw it was not leaves but instead a flock of sparrows settling down for the night. Beside that tree was another exactly like it in which there perched not a single bird.
In my relationship with God I trip continually over obedience. Obedience to what end? Why? Somewhere along the line authority and I parted company, and I throw sidelong glances even at the Most High when He expects me blindly and dumbly to obey. I am poor and chaste, but I am not obedient. In my prayers I am always talking of my rights.
Too many who call themselves realistic do not see things more clearly, but merely fewer things.
Independence is sometimes merely assertion, like draining the bath that was drawn for you and taking a shower instead.
A difficulty in one’s walk with God is to know when He wants to hear “Thy will be done” and when “I want this.” I myself have often said both within the space of an hour.
I think it is possible to love the earth more than God does. He sees beyond. I do not. I hold the gold leaf in my hand, weeping.
Love and hate are close. Love and grief are closer.
Both the poet and the mystic mean everything literally.
To say that something is not acceptable does not mean we will not find ourselves accepting it.
Darkness enters into nearly every definition of God.
Suffering is not the only road to grace, but it is the usual one. Consciously to reject suffering is to reject grace.
It is hard to think of a reason why God should love me. It is hard to think of a reason why I should love God if He doesn’t love me.
On the 5th of February Grandmother wrote to me, “I guess no one will forget this winter. It is not one thing but everything. People out of work, no heat, some out of water, prices sky high, scarcity of food. I’m glad I don’t drink coffee. The schools and churches are closed here. I get tired of putting stuff around my door every night to keep the air out. I hope I can get oil next week. I keep a heavy dress and two sweaters on and I still get cold. . . . We used to get a cabin where they said a white deer came out in the evening with the other deer, but we never saw it.”
I am chaste as a saint and no saint at all.
A sad thing is sad in proportion to its beauty.
A little sparrow comes chirping and whistling. At another age I would have believed he sang for me; now it is enough that he sings for himself.
Downtown I saw a policeman, middle-aged, thick and burly, tenderly buttoning the jacket of a blond young man, little more than a boy. I thought they must be father and son until I walked past and saw that the boy’s hands were cuffed behind his back.
Lord, when I need Thee more than love Thee, forgive.
Faith lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it.
If God were Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton would burn in hell.
What God expects from us and what contemporary society leads us to expect from one another are perpetually at odds. Simple matters are the worst matters. Do we serve silently, or do we sometimes demand the service we are taught is our right as human beings? Do we consider only, or do we sometimes demand consideration?
Whoever says, “God answers prayers” is a naif or a liar, or more in Thy favor than I. I have not prayed in two years that I was not mocked. Not merely refused, but ridiculed before the angels. I shall forgive Thee, Lord, but I shall not forget.
My invariable response to the gifts of God is, “It’s not enough.”
People ask me what I have been doing. Nearly all my life is private life, so I answer, “Oh, nothing,” believing actually that it is a seething cauldron of event.
White Room in the Uris Library. It’s subtle agony to return to the site of your wildest flights of optimism. Four years ago in this room was the last time I believed I would succeed. And oh, I did believe it, hot and happy. The memory of illusion is joyful; do I not prefer it to the sobriety of wisdom?
I know the battle God and I will fight. He will say, “X is right for you,” and I will answer, “Who cares? I want Y,” and we shall go round forever.
The 25th of April. Green Lakes. I sat so close to a feeding sandpiper I could hear a tiny splash when his beak entered the water.
The scroll of years rolls out before me: it is rich, beautiful, and utterly alone. Do I count this a blessing or a catastrophe? Either way, it is grief. Beauty is not enough. When I was a child, beauty was enough. Now that I am a man, it is a blade, a torch, a salted wound.
God is spiritual but He is in no sense abstract. To tell Sunday-school children that God is “invisible” is to misrepresent utterly.
Matter is the imagery of God.
Each time I come to the forest I recognize that it is the only truth I know on earth.
Man’s courage was made for winter.
What a poor life it would be if our senses received only such stimuli as they understood!
Leaves of autumn. They fall with surprising force. Walking, more than once I have turned to see who touched me, when it was but a bit of the summer falling.
I slouch because I was told to straighten up; I sneer because I was told to smile; I laugh because everyone around is crying; I keep silence because I was asked to speak. Lord, when will You deliver me?
Bob says that to be a Christian is to have such an overwhelming conviction of personal immortality that no earthly happenstance will tarnish one’s good humor. He said that he could be maimed, blind, crippled, in pain for forty years, and still be glad in the knowledge that in the hereafter he shall be glorified. I thought it strange that life after death is considered the first (and apparently primary) conviction of a Christian. Did Christ show us how to die or how to live? Living in the hope of life to come is like tolerating squalor and degradation because you are the heir of a wealthy uncle who will die one day and leave you plenty. If the glory of the next life is our concern, why live this life at all? Terra is our home even as Zion shall be. Denial of Zion is a sin against the Son the Redeemer; denial of Terra is a sin against the Father the Creator. Bob is an example of the true and forthright Christian. His theory does not hobble him as it might me.
Running has been lax this winter. Twenty-five miles in a month. Today I set out upon the ice. Not a good run, maybe, but I regained my old form, the thump thump that becomes a rhythm to hold to over the miles. Ran to the top of high Glamu. Ice blast from the northwest drove me down. As I ran down the curving road, I saw a little hawk sailing over my head. I stopped dead in my tracks. He flapped and floated over the scarecrow trees, above the sparkling conifers, driven, I think, not by hunger but by delight. He vanished. I was released and ran again. Then he appeared once more, directly above, floating stationary in the great wind. I was filled with exultation and terror, for it was a god. A vortex came into the wind and drew me up toward the bird. I have never run so fast, and the bird stayed over me. I did not feel the ground. His speed was mine, my weight his. He drew up when the weariness was too great in me, and left me exhausted in the sleet fields.
Divinities take the shape of birds and beasts, and if we honor them they will change us.
Peter said to me, “I like classical music because I like it. You like it because it has snob appeal.” I was defenseless, not able even to determine what the provocation was.
The first fire insurance company was founded in 1680 by a Puritan physician named If-Jesus-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebones. His business moniker was Nicholas Barbon.
Linda called last night to report that Uncle Zack is dead, that Diane is pregnant and, subsequently, married to a man named Nick whom no one knew, that Cathy is in the Virgin Islands with a man twenty years her senior who is leaving his wife for her, that Beth narrowly escaped arrest in a bar raid. Aunt Barbara entered the room, blurted all of this out in one breath, finished with, “There, now, it’s done.”
Harmony is rejected by American cities, by Americans in general, because harmony implies a subjugation of parts to the whole. We subjugate nothing.
If a lover does not demand more than we have to give, what use is love?
Hell is theory; heaven is things.
Newsweek reports the titles of Sabhuza II, King of Swaziland: the Lion of Swaziland, Son of the She-elephant, the Bull, the Inexplicable, the Great Mountain. The King calls his adversaries “hyenas urinating upwind to stampede the cattle below.”
This morning there was a grasshopper on a squash blossom. Last night the foxes were leaping at my window.
There is only one thing with which Satan can tempt me: the power to hurt God back.
I think tonight of Luther, parishioner of the Church of the Savior. As an usher he often stands behind the choir during the Lord’s Prayer. He does not recite like the rest of us. He prays slowly, deliberately, feeling every word as it leaves his mouth. If our petitions reach heaven, it is on the wings of his sincerity.
To love God is to deliver yourself into the hands of betrayal. Nevertheless, love Him you must.
I desired only beauty. The world forces truth on me as well.
I must remember that my life and my desires are only half of the argument.
When I reach the end of my rope, the Lord responds by giving me more rope.
To complicate matters, there is always the fool who cries out, “The emperor has no clothes!” when in fact the emperor is fully and gorgeously dressed.
I woke this morning with a lover beside me, a human lover. I take this as justice, as revenge, that the song of God might be silent for a while.