Friday, December 26, 2014
Diary (Christmas Day - 2014)
A week before Christmas, misfortune befell my family. My youngest son was hospitalized. My wife’s misery caused her to cancel Christmas. But Christmas is an ancient and profound celebration and it does not allow itself to be so readily ignored. The glass bulbs suspended from a Christmas tree are hung with sharp arcs of wire that resemble fish-hooks. Once the hook has been set, it does not readily release.
I promised myself that I would write about these misfortunes, but not today or, even, tomorrow but, later, when time had assuaged some of the sorrow. Perhaps, I will write an account of these misfortunes 20 years from now, which means, of course, that I will not live to complete this task. About twenty-five years ago, I suffered some wounds that I vowed I would turn into literature. I invented metaphors and objective correlatives for the experience and, even, wrote a few unsatisfactory paragraphs. Then, I set the project aside to ripen. I have never returned to that work and, of course, today would hesitate to open an old wound that has healed more or less.
For most of the week surrounding Christmas, a peculiar meteorological condition prevailed in southern Minnesota where this story is set. Night-time temperatures were almost precisely the same as the temperature during the daytime. At midnight or three a.m., it was 33 degrees Fahrenheit; at noon, the temperature was 35 degrees. Fog clung to the earth and the sidewalks were wet, but not icy. Meteorologists in the Twin Cities commented on the peculiar equivalence between daytime and night temperatures. What did this mean? And is there a name for such a phenomenon – the winter solstice isotherm?
On Christmas morning, I took the dog out into my backyard as is my custom at the start of each day. For some reason, my vision had become extraordinarily acute and clear. It seemed to me that there was no limitation to the detail that my eyes could see and the landscape around me assumed a visionary aspect. At first, I noticed patterns on the houses and garages clustered around my backyard: the soffit of a home a half-block away was edged with many grooves and my eye recorded that alteration between light and dark made by those grooves; shingles formed a dense, but articulate, pattern on adjacent roofs and, everywhere that I turned, I saw intricate, regular designs – repeating lattices, parallel lathe posts comprising a fence, elaborate cross-hatching on walls or siding, all the more poignant because my eye also caught the deviations in those patterns, the places where mold or rot were at work, the storm-damaged edges of things, discolorations and bruises in the material jointed together to make the labyrinth of my neighborhood. There was no limit to what I could see: where curtains were slightly parted, my eye probed the interior of houses and saw floral wallpaper, mirrors like goblets full of quicksilver, family photographs in cheap frames, a burnt-out candle on a window-sill, the frayed edge of documents stacked on a far-away half-glimpsed desk. Normally, I saw a house as one form, a hulking thing labeled by the mind as "house," surrounded by skeletal things that the mind called "trees." But this morning, I saw each surface of the nearby houses as textured, imprinted upon space, cross-hatched with the exquisite refinement that one might cherish in an old lithograph or wood cut and the trees nearby branched and surged upward, a circulatory system of twigs and branches incised by an engraver’s burin against the featureless sky. I felt as if I were hallucinating and I wondered if there would some reprisal for this excessive and unexpected accretion to my sense of sight.
I stood motionless in the backyard, watching some Christmas lights flickering in a tree across the street and, with my new-found perception, I desired to count those little lights and was engaged in that process when my wife came to the back door and looked at me quizzically and, then, said: "Have you had a stroke?" I was vividly aware of my exact position in space and, suddenly, noticed that I could see in three-dimensions, that the world was no longer a flat frieze, but was a series of planes defined by objects occupying those planes at varying dimensions from my eyes – a grey iron-colored branch from a tree nearby reached forward to me. It was as if I were watching a three-dimensional movie: the branch of the tree was vivid, a sign delineating space, a portal to distances that it framed for me. "Something is wrong with my eyes," I said to my wife. The dog was romping in circles around the gazebo on this Christmas morning. "I can see too much, too much of everything," I said.
With my daughter, Angelica, later that morning, I drove to Faribault to a family Christmas at the home of my brother, David. My vision remained preternaturally acute. The patterns of snow dusting the edges of the fields and the lean shelter-belt comprised of black palisades of bare branch and trunk exercised a particular fascination over me. It was a lightless day, the temperature stuck at 34 degrees and the sky overhead grey with peculiarly featureless clouds. My daughter was listening on the car stereo to songs by the Norwegian band Gothminister, loud ominous music that made a hammering sound. The singer growled the lyrics to the music and they were idiotic: "We always fear what we can’t relate to," was one of the lines that I heard the singer repeat several times. I said to my daughter: "It’s pretty clear that this singer doesn’t have English as his native language." "He’s from Norway," Angelica told me. The disc that Angelica had slipped into my car’s CD-player was called Happiness in Darkness. The fourth song on the disc was called "Freak" and began with a sample from the soundtrack of Tod Browning’s movie Freaks – a carnival barker cried: "But for an accident of birth, you would be as they are. They did not ask to be brought into this world and, yet, they have come."
The grain storage tanks that I passed seemed to diagram logical or grammatical propositions. Two great cylinders linked overhead by a tracery of millwork signified "either/or". A more distant array of storage bins, also bound together by overhead brackets of metal, illustrated the concept of "if/then." The big row of storage tanks comprising the granary at Hope was more complex, a theorem with greater and lesser parts, a decision tree posted between the unforgiving sky and the equally unforgiving horizon.
It seemed that this Christmas day would be lightless, that it would be dusk all day long.
I stopped at the Straight River Rest Stop to go to the toilet. The people that I met called out "Merry Christmas!" to me. A man and weary-looking woman were unloading crates of candy bars and soda pop from a panel van drawn up into one of the handicap parking spaces next to the rest stop building. They were replenishing the vending machines in the lobby adjacent to the rest rooms. From that lobby, I could look down into a beautiful, dark, and deep ravine, a crease in the prairie studded with trees leading down to the river below. The ravine was outlined in snow and seemed to have been carefully inscribed in the plain. I thought that it was a very beautiful thing.
After the rest-stop, Angelica removed her Gothminister CD and I put a Herb Alpert disc in the machine. I had thought that Herb Alpert was long-dead but, apparently, this is not so. My daughter asked me: "What is this music? It sounds like something that you would hear in an elevator." "I suppose you are right," I said. In his old age, Herb Alpert’s trumpet whispers; he is beginning to sound tentative and indecisive, more than a little like, Chet Baker. "It’s some kind of Latin-American jazz," I said to my daughter. I recalled the album cover for the mid-sixties Tijuana Brass record Whipped Cream – a beautiful young woman, naked and slathered with whipped cream; she mischievously licks some of the cream from her fingers. How was it that Herb Alpert, the contemporary of Bill Dana ("Jose Jimenez") and Don Adams was still alive? I looked at the record, produced by something called Shout! Factory – it was copyrighted 2014.
There is a limb of high-prairie immediately to the south of Faribault, a sort of altar that the freeway crosses, and, from there, you can look across to the grove of battered trees sheltering the ruins of the old hospital for the insane, one of the most haunted spots in Minnesota. On the car stereo, Herb Alpert played "Spanish Harlem," but the song was not complete, merely an allusion to the tune, a citation, as it were – his trumpet overdubbed to double itself, Alpert played the theme and, then, voices chanted "There is a rose in Spanish Harlem". The voices repeated those words about a half-dozen times and, then, the trumpet sounded again and the song was over.
The words "There is a rose in Spanish Harlem" reminded me of my father. His favorite Christmas hymn was Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ("Lo, how a rose e’er blooming"). When I was young, we owned a record with that hymn as adapted by Michael Praetorius. My father loved Christmas and he played that record incessantly during the holidays. My father has been dead for many years and I haven’t heard that hymn for a long time and this year, 2014, Christmas, in fact, had been canceled due to misfortune. But I thought about the song and my father as we entered Faribault and crossed the river on the high viaduct and, then, came to a crossroads where the signs say "BLIND" with an arrow pointing in one direction and "DEAF" with an arrow aimed the opposite way and a third arrow directing the traveler to the prison located among the ravines overlooking the Cannon River.
At my brother’s house, I played with some small children and pet the hounds prancing around underfoot. I drank some of my brother’s home-brewed beer, drank wine with my meal, as well, and, then, went outside to smoke a cigar. My cigar was called a "Green Iguana". I told my brother and his son that there had been an article published in a Twin Cities newspaper about the ruinous and haunted asylum at the edge of town. "Many young people go there to commit suicide," my brother told me.
We ate cheesecake for dessert. A tiny girl sat next to me. She was three years old and, surprisingly, talkative. Her grandmother said: "You’re pretty brave now, but you don’t like the Ghost of Christmas Past do you?" "Oh, no," the small child replied, wrinkling her face with worry. A rich goat cheese was served. My brother said that the cheese went well with popcorn. "If you don’t believe me," he said, "try this." I ate a few kernels of popcorn and, then, nibbled on the cheese. He was right; the flavors complemented one another.
Angelica and I left my brother’s house in Faribault at 3:00 pm. We drove south on the freeway to Albert Lea. Angelica is going with her grandmother to Texas for a week or so. Julie’s mother, Beverly, sometimes spends the cold months in Texas and she planned to drive to Houston with her sister-in-law on the 26th of December. At Beverly’s house, I helped Angelica carry her bags from my car. Inside, I stood at the place where Beverly’s husband, Angelica’s grandfather, had been sprawled dead on the floor near his easy chair. We had stepped over his corpse in the preceding February when we came to the home in the immediate aftermath of his death. An ineradicable darkness filled that room. I asked Beverly how far she intended to travel on the first day of the trip to Texas. "We will stop in Osceolo, Iowa," she said. "Then, the next day?" I asked. "I don’t know," she said, "we go through Kansas City and Oklahoma City. We’ll just have to stop when we get tired." "Okay," I said. I have never left on a road trip without reservations at motels where I intend to stop and so, I admired her courage, but also thought it folly. "It’s 35 all the way down to Dallas and Fort Worth," she said. I agreed with her. "That’s the way that Dick always went," Beverly said. "Grandpa Dick knew the way," I said. I glanced away from her to the wall where Grandpa Dick’s great fish, caught in the icy waters of an Alaskan river, was mounted over the fireplace.
Driving back home, between Austin and Albert Lea, the sun burst through the clouds and sprayed light all over the landscape, but it was a dying light, the light of sunset for Christmas day was now ending. The trees cast immense shadows in the oblique light and the concrete overpasses shone like gold in the rays of the setting sun. The fields brown with frost-killed grass and stubble were gilded and glowed like honey in the radiance pouring out of the west.
When the Sun (appears) do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an innumerable Company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God almighty. (William Blake).
When I reached my home, I found Julie sitting in the darkness. The house was gloomy. She said that terrible thoughts were afflicting her.
I walked the dog. The brief moment of brightness in the sky had ended. Although it was dark and the sun had set, a strip of grey-white light remained along the horizon. The ribbon of grey-white had the dull color of the belly of a dead fish. Of course, I knew that it was an opening in the pervasive cloud cover, a momentary rift in the overcast skies and the last remnant of the blaze of glory over the eastbound freeway that I experienced for a couple minutes as I drove home from Albert Lea. My eyes were still preternaturally acute and each capillary of twig reaching into the sky from the trees seemed incised into my vision, etched, as it were, upon my retina. In the early morning, I had read an essay about Mimbres’ pottery and how the designs on those ceramics exploit negative space – a figure painted in a Mimbres’ bowl a thousand years old might be interpreted either as advancing toward the eye or receding, that is, as a positive figure or a negative void. Looking skyward, I tried to experiment with the band of grey over the horizon: it was either a hole in the sky or a pale white wall, the faded marble of Zion, approaching from the heavens above.
The excess of vision from which I suffer is evidence of that which is refractory in the world. Things are obstinately present and unnecessarily intricate in their details. A tree should be a trunk like a Doric column and one or two limbs, bifurcating once or twice to a stubby terminus. But, instead, a tree is vastly elaborate assembly of surfaces, lines, textures, a cloud of twigs in an orb-shape, a trunk embedded in mats of grass rippling up over roots that clutch at the earth, a haven and repository for black birds of a hooded mien that brood over the intricacy of existence.
In an essay on the Olmecs, I encountered this quotation from Mircea Eliade:
The imagination imitates the exemplary models – the Images – reproduces, re-actualizes, and repeats them without end. To have imagination is to be able to see the world in its totality, for the power, and the mission of images is to show all that remains refractory to the concept...