Cool nights. Great for sleeping. Lovely to roll around and push one’s foot down into the autumnal depths of the sheet and lie there, soothed. As if you were stretched out in a cool mountain stream, with the trees forming a luminous and shadowy canopy over you. This is how my dreams form, in the tranquilized latitudes of my bed — my Lotus land, where the torpor is overpowering me. Below, in the village street, footsteps make echoes and slowly disappear. No one is hurrying to a job or some furtive assignation with a lover. Things have been submerged in a glue of formless intentions. Stars shine like falling nickels through the sky, and the wind, soft as caressing hands, passes over the roof and rolls itself north toward Grenoble and the first humps of the Alps.
I am thankful that the dismal news can’t reach me now. I lie under its acidic fury, its despair, its unforgiving attitude to power, its relentless appetite for death and destruction. The morbid consciousness of the Washington Post babbles on into the night to the insomniacs who can’t turn away. The gray admonitions of the New York Times lie there in heaps of slag over the desolate realism of America. CNN keeps showing the same loop tapes of crashing trees and flying roofs, as if this anarchy were somehow instructive and bore repeating for hours. All that unravels beyond me, and I lie here with my wandering thoughts as my eyes grow heavy.
I’m usually not a good sleeper. I often lie awake to two and three a.m. and wonder what it was I ate that keeps me up. But not now. Not when autumn has begun to pick at the tattered edge of summer, and lets trickle in the first cold mercury air. We are in good hands. The year tilts toward darkness and shivering, and the sky is oblivious of human suffering. Things move forward in their primordial rhythm, as if nothing could stop the ageless momentum of change. I’m grateful. I blink in the dark and hear my thank you whispered softly. I am spared the torment and the misery, the devastation, and the voice of Lady Macbeth cursing her enemies. I grieve for those who have lost their houses, their jobs, their apartments and now wonder out into the streets with kids trailing close behind. I groan to think of their hunger, the desolate shelters that are crammed with coughing bodies tossing on thin mattresses. I know I am selfish to embrace my moment of peace in this dark bedroom, but I am not used to feeling such unraveling of my muscles, the loosening of skin and sinew and the fragile house of my soul turning into balsa wood.
My neighbor has finally returned from her annual visit to Italy, where she is invited to join a long table of friends and relatives of her late husband. The glass is raised, the plates passed along laden with pasta and tureens brimming with sauces thick with truffles and mushrooms, hanks of melting pork, boiled eggs glistening in their marble-white flesh. She comes home a widow with only her son to keep her company at the noon meal. She lights the table lamps and sits quietly in her chair and gazes about her as night falls over the windows like black curtains. A glass of wine sits on the table next to her and glows like a Persian ruby. She knows she is in a room haunted by her husband’s sighs, his struggle to breathe after a long life as a mason, an artisan who stood over his plaster tub and breathed the dusty air that would turn his lungs into glass. She forgives the power of death its magic and terror, and smiles to herself. She loves her life and takes a delicate sip of her wine, as fruity and enchanting as his laughter.
Night submerges us in our silent houses. We are all drowning in obscurity, letting go our relation to summer, to the dazzling sunlight that lifted us out of our ignorance and made us bend to our obligations. We let the thread of necessity unravel in our hands as we lie there, and become indifferent to the ticks and rattles of night. Nothing worries us. Our hands reach out under the pillow and feel the cool waters of the creek flowing beside us. “I mind how once we lay such a transparent morning,” I dimly recall from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where he feels his soul roll over him like a lover and plunge its tongue into his heart. “How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, and parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue into my bare-stript heart.” The vision of America rises in his mind, and he lifts up on the wings of some mysterious power to look down at the farms, the little towns, the big towns that sprawl over the river-braided land, and the curve of the earth itself, the starry sky, the thinning reality of time and space, as he rises ultimately to behold the face of God. His vision takes him up one side of a mountain and leads him down again, into the shadows on the far side, where he gathers up the lame, the ill, the suffering, and leads them like some redeemer of democracy forward to a promised land. I pine for such a vision as I lie there in my lassitude, my hands loosely folded over my chest.
Night is a palace of memories, with the beams lashed to the roof and corded with fragments of childhood, vanished links of how we grew up, and faint traces of our mother caressing our hair and sending us up to bed after a rambling story about ghosts and goblins. Night’s vaults and flying buttresses are all we are when darkness descends. We have no lasting framework of the real to rely on, or to scare us. The marshy edges of dream leads us deeper and deeper into the savage wilderness of our roots, and call forth the strange creatures that inhabit the furthest recesses of imagination. I am escorted by angels to the water’s edge and bid to let myself submerge until the waters close over me. I swim through the uncertainty. Ideas merge and dissolve, names fall apart like the bubbles of my breath. Luminous objects appear and scatter like starlight. The moon evaporates on the shimmering skin of the seafloor. Further on lies the great mystery we cannot know or confront; it is out there, a god in dissolved atoms, floating like sea kelp in the current. My breath becomes cold and indistinct, as if I had become a fish and could absorb the unknown through my gills. I feel my fins grow and the scales of my back turn into shards of mica. I am part of nature, a long lost orphan of its great continuum. I feel hands join mine and lead me on, ever deeper, to the canyons that open under me. I am falling into the abyss of sleep and am joyful to know there is no bottom to this world. I am free. I have become a tiny ingot of light in this unlit medium. Everything is strange and suddenly familiar to me. I rejoice in my ability to descend without fear.
This is the realm of lunatics and saints, the dimension you cannot enter without giving up your frail consciousness. I am escorted further by the ghosts of Jung and Freud, who advise me to turn back at some point, lest I become an American Indian and forfeit all I have gathered since the age of Enlightenment. I refuse, and feel the muscles binding my spine flex and unflex as I go deeper. I am no longer a child of reason, but something as primitive as an echinoderm, a slithering wraith of the depths. The upper world is behind me, where birds swoop and arc up into the cold blue sky with their prey. The clouds are alien to me, great mountains of white air bulging with unfallen rain. The mountains range below with their ancient scars and plunging escarpments. But I am not there, not walking on their scree, or smelling the granite air of their privacy. I am here, far below, in another world, my eyes large and unblinking as I try to reach the place where contradictions melt away into a vast consensus of unreason. How delicate the water is as it touches me, and lets me go, like a lover’s hands at the train station, as I board the last train of night and head off into the indefinable distance. I know I will wake and give up my transparency, but now, in this egg-shell thinness of self I am searching with my foot for that coolness that lies at the border of what I am. I hold in my breath an expectation that will not achieve itself in this life.
Always good to hear such words. Makes me sharpen my pencil! Paul
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I look forward to every post. Wonderful prose and thoughts to ponder.
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I wonder if everyone else is as blown away by Christensen’s prose as I am. What a gift to read these moments
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I completely agree, Barbara. I think he is a major American essayist.
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