Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The end of all our exploring

From indoors, a snowstorm only appears against the dark surfaces of objects--trees, buildings, automobiles, a stray mailbox or two--while against its source, the sky, snow is, most times, invisible.  From inside the house, this atmospheric disturbance is reflected against what surrounds us, as though its source were not understandable, were not known.  But this is typical of many of life's problems.  We deal with what we can see and what we can't remains a mystery.

Obviously, or maybe not so much, I was in Vermont for a while.  Before I left for the north country, a few lines of poetry ran through my conscious mind:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Eliot, I thought.  Yes.  Eliot.  I chose not to re-read any of Four Quartets; I just glanced at the end, because I figured that would be about right.

Quite a long time ago, I had a boyfriend of one sort or another who liked to speak of his 'choice' to do one thing or another within personal relationships.  Needless to say, this puzzled me.  At the time, I didn't know why.  Probably because I was young and probably because I came of age in an era when men were still nominally in charge of the progress of relationships, so I found it awkward to challenge him on that account.  When I encountered him again when we were both grown-up people, I found, after a time, that, despite voicing his respect for women regularly, he retained that ability to pull rank by invoking this right--it was my choice, he would say.

Presented with this sort of maneuver, my tendency is to go blank.  Opaque.  Call me the snow against the sky, whited out, my rage accumulating ineffectively, softly, but deeply.  My rage only partially visible, reflected against the dark outline of his person.  And so he was puzzled by me, the source of my anger invisible to him.  He could see only its manifestation, which appeared unjust.

While we were in Vermont, I ran my husband's iPhone through the washer and the dryer.  I chose not to check his pockets.  We couldn't be angry with each other; we were too much in shock.  Not only the expense, an avenue of our communication was suddenly shut off.  Sometimes we text each other at restaurants while sitting across from one another over the white expanse of tablecloth.

At first, the damaged iPhone screen was just a mass of clouds as the water billowed under its glass sheath.  When the main button was depressed, something like straight line lightening flickered in narrow bands across the small white rectangle.  For a bit, the flickers seemed to bring the device back toward some electronic version of life--the time and the battery indicator appeared ghostly across the top, the app icons in color negative faintly.  Of course, it died just 48 hours later.  But the phone still rang, with no way to answer it.

Hobbling about with only one phone, we managed to have a night out.  We saw the remake of True Grit.  At the beginning, the heroine, Mattie Ross, says, You must pay for everything in this world one way and another.  There is nothing free with the exception of God's grace.  In his NYTimes column, Stanley Fish reminds the reader that, in the book, Mattie adds, You cannot earn that or deserve it. I read the column in advance of the film, and what resonated with me was this:
What this means is that there are two registers of existence: the worldly one in which rewards and punishment are meted out on the basis of what people visibly do; and another one, inaccessible to mortal vision, in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.
Needless to say, given the circumstances of my life, by the end of the movie I was in tears.  The penultimate scene has Mattie, in this remake, a highly capable 14-year-old, snake-bitten and carried out of the wilderness by Cogburn, who rides her horse into the ground in an attempt to save her life.  The scene is long, and they ride against a night sky black with stars, on and on.  Finally, the horse slows and stops, wanders sideways for a few paces and collapses.  Nothing can be seen on the horizon, round in every direction.  Then he picks her up and carries her.  For about ten miles to the nearest outpost.

Caught up in the film's reality, I thought, this is what I do.  I go on because there is no other choice.  And when the horse collapses under me, I carry him.  Sometimes people ask me how I do it, and usually I say, you find you do what you have to do.  I'm not melodramatic about it, but I could be.  I could say, go see True Grit.  I could describe that scene the way I experienced it emotionally.  No one would, I think, believe me.  Who cries at the end of a big-budget motion picture?

Robert is very sick.  But he only seems that way when the storm is leaving its traces against his physical body.  The source has been invisible to us for a long time.  The source is mitochondrial disease.  The manifestation of this is Leigh's syndrome.  Mitochondrial disease is where we started, years ago, with all of those efforts at diagnosis, and it was, the most terrible thing we could imagine.  But the tests showed nothing then.  Because I could not see the source of the storm, it never occurred to me that Robert could predecease me.  So I arrive where I started and know the place for the first time.  Or, as Longinus wrote, first we see through a glass darkly, then face to face.

I first came face to face with this idea of mortality in June, driving back from the Cleveland Clinic while a Red Sox game played on the radio and Adrian Beltre had just hit a homerun.  And the green hills of Pennsylvania were all around us and I sat back in my seat, much as I sat down in a chair when I realized I was pregnant with Robert and the responsibility settled on my shoulders like a cloak.  And this time, I realized that more, again, was being asked of me.  I felt blank, opaque.  We drove on.

There are two registers of existence: what we imagine to be our free will, our choice, and what we must do because we have no choice.

It's awfully easy to say, but I'll say it.  The past is past and the present is now and the future will be whatever it is.  The future simply exists, outside the scope of each of our plans.  We ride these plans recklessly or with care, we ride them until they're played out.  We ride thinking we know where we're headed though we do not, and the moment happens when they collapse beneath us and we will be judged by our ability to walk on through the dark that telescopes behind and in front of us.  What carries us to that point is not what we think--not our determination or our will, but the cresting energy of the world beneath us, holding us upright and moving forward.  When we're forced to dismount, we move under our own power at last.


Elizabeth said...

oh, jeneva --

Leightongirl said...

Now I'm in tears. What else is there to say?

erika said...

Jeneva, I read your post a while ago and it left me speechless... I still don't know what is there to say except for I'm so sorry and you are in my thoughts.