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Paul Christensen: What Isolation Teaches Us

The magpies have all packed up and left with the last straggling tourists. I don’t hear their falsetto cries anymore, and I miss them. I love to see two such tuxedoed birds on a branch over the road chattering away like prom dates before the music starts. They’re gone and they have left behind the empty branches of gnarled oak trees. The wind rattles the last few leaves on their limbs and the long shadows devour the crumbs of last summer’s hopes. You feel the black silk of the wind rub against your neck, and you tread more lightly so as not to wake the ghosts nearby.

The landscape seems to stare back at me with gritted teeth, as if there was some unnerving movement far below, deep inside the earth’s mantle. I imagine huge plates sliding over each other, floating on the pale glow of magma, searching for some means of venting the pressure building. Up here, on the crinkled surface of the woods, with its dunes of fallen leaves slowly curling into fists, there is a similar tension. I feel the weight of the pandemic bearing down on me, worrying about all those stricken people trying to breathe through their plastic hoses, clutching the bed rails to pull down the air that can’t get through to the lungs. As a child I spent some anxious nights in the hospital under an oxygen tent trying to make it through my long asthmatic seizures. I know what it is like to try to drag air down where it can keep you alive, and hardly knowing how I would have the energy to pull down another breath, and another.

Now the resistance to vaccines is hardening and the Republican governors are bearing down ever more vigorously against the federal agencies trying to cope with the dreary persistence of the delta variant and all the other threats looming in the blurry distance. It makes me take a step on the hard ground and then another, as my thoughts scatter into molecules of dread. Walking is the cure for everything, my mother said. Just get up and leave the house, go down a road, don’t care where it is taking you. You’ll forget all about your woes, and come home smiling. It works most of the time. And right now, with the October chill finding its way up the sleeves of my jacket, I need to walk harder, not look up, not question my progress.

But the hard blue shell of the sky is always a consolation to me. Its luster has the glint of cold metal, and the fluffy, broken clouds rise like puffs of dust from the armor of heaven. This is the mouth of infinity, and it opens to swallow up time and gulp down the petty grievances of being human. I feel an arm slipping into mine, taking me further away from the present. We go down a steep hill and find a new path, and follow it around an ancient oak tree full of galls and missing branches, standing there with fierce resolve against the weather. I admire its strength and old age, and wonder how long it will withstand the cruelty of ice and snow, the indifference of the stark winds that blow all winter long. I long to know what language it speaks so I could talk to it, understand what wisdom guides it in its rootedness. But I am only dreaming, making things up as I follow my feet into the denser, pathless way ahead of me.

I read once a memoir by a Scottish minister, who wrote that prayer is the means by which a person can talk to the other side of self, the part that has no access except through the medium of repeated syllables. One side of me is deaf, and blind, and goes along with my will most of the time, but is lonely. It has no way of reaching beyond me to the larger world. It simply exists as a ghost within me, and the more I wander, the lonelier it becomes. That is when the soul rebels and makes prayer the only way to balance the opposites that rage below consciousness. But I am not given to praying, and feel self-conscious when I try to find words that make sense to me. Who am I praying to, I wonder. And what should I ask of this unspecified listener? All I can think of is Janis Joplin’s mordant lyric about asking god for a Mercedes-Benz. Her Texas accent is full of the dry sunlight and arid plains of south Texas, and her mockery of easy Christian faith makes you blush to hear it. “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,” she wheedles and pleads. But she would pawn it the moment she drove off the car lot, and buy an electric guitar, go to a fancy hotel and drink up the champagne. Prayer must come from the pale glow of magma under the vast plates that separate us from the soul.

A bird floats out of my thoughts just now, and lands far above my head as if it were a word fallen out of a sentence. Imagine how many living things make up the language of nature, how many syllables are uttered in a given moment and become a chant, an incantation to the gods who reside in the cold, rotting soil of this hillside. It would take more than a thesaurus to discover this invisible language, and to begin to use its arcane symbols and short hand mysticism. The spiritual world is made of slanting light, the desolate shades of ice and loneliness that pervade the dark corners of churches, where statues stare out of the gloom at all those frail women saying their rosaries. The candles wobble in their red cups, and the chairs that slide on the marble floor echo like the moans of the dead. Everything mortal ends up in this pervasive half-light, and the spirits that wander the silence looking for hope can only make you desperate. Better to push open the heavy wooden door to the street and let the sunshine fill all the hollows of your consciousness.

The descent levels off to a goat path and leads back to the village. I’m glad to be done with my walk. I’m cold. I shiver a little as I head back up a new hill and see the outcrops of roofs and walls, the towering spire of the church soaring like a light house over the crepuscular shadows. It’s good to have a home; I’m grateful it waits for me. I need the fire, the easy chair, the beamed ceiling enclosing me and walling off my speculations. I want to sit with a glass of wine and stare deep into the twinkling embers, and to feel the warmth embrace me. Isolation is a great teacher and tutors the soul to be compassionate, to know one’s limits. But too much of instruction from such a lofty source can dull the passions, and make the world more difficult to love. I need the company of my fellow humans, even if I am alone most of the time. My thoughts grow vague when I think of how much I crave the sound of voices on the still air. I taste their vowels, their abbreviated feelings, and feel the rasp of shoes on the cobblestones. I know I am not alone. I am far away, hidden from the aching holiness of saints and faded portraits of dead priests. Enough of sanctity; bring me a bowl of soup, a slab of bread smeared with butter, a full-bellied glass of red wine to slurp as I sit here. I need to know that my life is set in motion by my desires.

In a pocket of night you may find a dream in which you are no longer yourself, but someone you hardly know at all. You pull on your trousers, lace up your shoes, and come downstairs for breakfast with no identity at all. You sit with your mug of coffee and gaze out through the spider webs of frost covering your window. A road goes by, and someone is waving to you to join her for the trip into town. Which town, you wonder. Does it not have a name as well? Are there houses, and cars, and shutters thrown open to the sun? You slip on a jacket and head out to sit beside her, and she looks at you as if she knew you. But makes no attempt to speak. The river lies there like frozen silver. The mountains are all gathered behind the forest. Your dream is eager to find out where you’re going, but you awake just before you step down onto the pavement. She is still there, behind you, urging you to enter the strange door, to make yourself at home. But your home is behind you, up the road, you say. She doesn’t answer you. She hands you a plate and asks if you’re hungry. There is no food in the house, only the ticking of a clock, the difficulty you feel breathing the cold air through your mouth to stay alive.


Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen

Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.

5 comments on “Paul Christensen: What Isolation Teaches Us

  1. Paul Christensen
    November 1, 2021

    thanks to both thoughtful responses~ always a pleasure to have readers respond with their own creativity!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jfrobb
    November 1, 2021

    Our words often struggle to get hold of what prayer and our souls are about. Unlike your success with ‘Prayer must come from the pale glow of magma under the vast plates that separate us from the soul.’
    Thank you for this and for the rest of the piece. Perhaps because this shifting of season is my favorite time of the year, I can see and hear and feel your particular details/images. A good way to start my day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara Huntington
    October 31, 2021

    “A bird floats out of my thoughts just now, and lands far above my head as if it were a word fallen out of a sentence”. This is the third quote I copied. I read this as I carried my coffee over to my chair, a coffee’s preparation away from my walk with Tashi. On the way home I removed the jacket. My walks leave me warm as the Southern California fog evaporates along the way. Thank you for small adventures across space.

    Liked by 1 person

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