Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lent: Mountains Were Mountains

I looked out the kitchen window yesterday during a lull in the afternoon and observed that the sky was gray, the same color, and seemingly the same substance, as the winter-bleached asphalt of the road, which, if there were no other houses in the way, seemed as if it could go on forever into the distant vanishing point and dissolve into that lowering metallic horizon, gray into gray. The unrelenting grayness seems to have seeped into my bones and entered my spirit. Though this happens less frequently now, my mind leapt to compare the northern-Appalachian grayness to what I used to know, in New York City, where on a day like this I would have left my house and walked and walked in the cold and the grayness until it seemed as if the March wind, which howled down certain streets unchecked and whipped scraps of paper into whirlwinds on street-corners, had swept everything contrary and unyielding from me, leaving my spirit as empty as a bare room.

The other day I was looking to buy some fava beans, but even the large supermarket chain that carries gourmet and ethnic foods didn't have them. I ended up at a little halal corner grocery store in the ghetto where, when I asked for fava beans, I was shown a whole shelf of them -- the Egyptian variety, the Palestinian variety, the Yemeni variety -- and which kind did I like? The shop was like a scrappy, rundown echo of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the blocks-long bazaar of Middle Eastern shops and restaurants where long ago I used to shop on Saturdays. I chatted with the owner, a halal butcher who told me that for twenty years he drove the 200 miles to New York every week to deliver his meat to those very shops. "In New York," he mused, "you walk out your door, and everything is handed to you."

Yes, that is true. In New York, someone has already opened that shop and sourced the gourmet groceries so that you don't have to. You can pay one thin dime, or even a penny, to time-travel and immerse yourself in the parallel dimension of the great artifacts of every culture in history at the Metropolitan Museum; a generous and well-endowed foundation has made it possible for even the broke and the poor to use their own judgment when considering the recommended $25 admission fee. You can go anywhere, you can walk anywhere. And the most beautiful trees bloom in the spring, the flowering pear trees that turn whole city blocks into tunnels roofed with white blossoms. And the gray of that rara avis, the urban pigeon, is illuminated by the lovely purple-green iridescence of its neck feathers as it struts and bobs to devour your half-eaten hot dog.

A zen master is supposed to have said, "When I was young, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. When I sought enlightenment, mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers were no longer rivers. Finally, mountains are mountains again, and rivers are rivers."

One of the hardest things for me about leaving New York and being here has been the unrelenting grayness that cannot be swept away with a long walk. While the countryside surrounding this town is beautiful in an unkempt, natural way, there is a distinct lack of the kind of man-made beauty that is fashioned by skill and artifice -- the beauty of Wallace Stevens's jar, which gave order to "the slovenly wilderness." When you go out your door, nothing is handed to you. You're on your own, in alien territory that feels vaguely hostile.

Back in New York, I sat on the floor next to my baby's crib and wrote my doctoral dissertation while he slept. When he woke up, we went to the neighborhood playground. Here, I despair of getting any serious work done on the book that the dissertation has become; there's no time even to write a blog post. Because nothing is handed to you here, I spend much of my time striving to create a parallel dimension for my children with the books and music and pictures in my own home, and I sometimes have my doubts about whether this endeavor is healthy. Is it creating a bulwark against the darkness of the world that will shore up my children against its cruelties, or is it nurturing futile dreams of beauty that will necessarily be crushed by that darkness? It seems a lot easier when everything is handed to you.

But I know some young single mothers who are refugees from New York, who see this broken-down, post-industrial former boom-town as a haven full of promise, and who never, ever want to go back. And I imagine that many, if not most, of my fellow citizens live in places like this -- small, decrepit cities that are gradually being invaded by spiritual darkness and in some cases even reverting to "the slovenly wilderness" -- and that to have spent the rest of my life in one of the greatest and most beautiful cities in the world, where everything is handed to you, would be to ignore that darkness, to be lulled to sleep by beauty and ease of access, and to do nothing about it.

I once thought I would do something great; I longed to reveal something of lasting beauty in the world. But instead, I teach music at a sad, down-at-heels community college to hardscrabble working-class students, who seem far less naturally-intelligent and well-prepared than the hardscrabble working-class students I used to teach in the City University of New York system. I feel sometimes like a Lego minifigure whose plastic legs have been swapped out for the short ones, or like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

But maybe mountains really are just mountains, and rivers really just rivers.

D.H. Lawrence wrote in his poem "The Phoenix":
Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled,
made nothing?
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?

If not, you will never really change.