The Silt Sermon
I’m 40, and glad about it! Went to Redwood Regional Park above Oakland. The outer rim trail is broad, bright, hot, lousy with professional (?) dog walkers doing their best to trot along at the hub of an asterisk of leashes. If you take the broken path downward you end up at a narrow, deep-cut streambed, dry in this parched season of my birth except for a few silty pools. I look for fish sleeping out the summer but can’t find any. Ferns, madrones, chickadees at work in the pines.
It’s cool down here, but enough sunlight cuts through to remind you of the heat above. When you try to take a picture it comes out seared white.
Now and then a bike goes past, or people walking in pairs. The older ones don’t have anything to say. The younger ones all seem to have grievances.
(—and I was really pissed, that she’d reach out to a donor in that way, someone who’s invested so much...)
(—maybe parents think that’s an intuitive way to put it, but it’s not intuitive at all, it’s not like, I don’t want to see you...)
I’ve felt that too, the sense that the forest must have a use, and that use must be to get square with whatever is outside the forest. I don’t have to do it now. I’m 40.
After the people go by, the birds restate their themes. Jays of course, and ravens, smaller calls I’m not sure about. Droning bugs, airplanes way up. The underlying rope weave, meant to hold the soil in place, is exposed and fraying.
Coming out of the canyon I pull out my phone, find some welcome email and the news that my birthday gift from Jerry Brown is his signature on SB 100.
Paradise is conceivable, but only tangible at—well—a tangent point. No one abides there.
“Daddy, when your book is published, are you going to be, like, a famous writer?”
“I mean, not right now. But maybe in two hundred years, or something?”
“But I guess monkeys might not read your book. Because we might evolve back into monkeys, you know.”
Isaac Babel’s war diaries. It’s not just the Red Army that imagines it’s fighting for a new world; on the Polish side the new state, the Rzeczpospolita, has only been in existence for a couple of years. Does it help to explain the brutality on both sides, that they both lay claim to the future? Probably not. After a point Babel despairs of explanation. Part of his job is to explain the coming marvels of socialism to the terrified families on which they’re billeted.
In 1920 there are still so many Jewish towns about, so many shops and synagogues. Reduced and scrambling, but extant, expecting more centuries of hard survival.
A Rzeczpospolita is a fragile thing. A people less so, and yet.
To reach for the historical lens, and think of the present as past, is not a matter of removing the obligation to act where one can, nor of washing out morals in blanket fatalism. One speaks of historical tragedy as one wouldn’t speak of geological tragedy.
The live trees, the dead trees, in Sequoia National Park. Venus can’t happen here, they said—
R.’s first day of second grade. Her class is all boys, the second grade is all boys—where have the girls gone? Private school? Oregon?
She puts on a plaid dress and leggings, elliptical hoop earrings, gets on her scooter, very chic, J. follows her around the corner to school. I get on my bike, clicking chain I still haven’t tamed, arrive at the office and am told, thanks for your recent supererogatory efforts on the big data project. I say that the portage over the steepest part of the mountain is over, and hope it’s true. The head of our department comes in, sees us all standing at our desks typing—“How can you do that all day?” We don’t know.
Lots of new people at the zendo, young and scruffy: must be the start of term? An older woman asking about the timing for a certain ceremony, is told, “We’ve had a lot of calendar-related challenges recently.” Low, fast fog, the sun keeps fading in and out, God’s mad hand on the dimmer knob. R. and J. both reading by lamplight when I get home. They’ve already eaten, I make myself a five-minute dinner out of the first things I find in the fridge: kimchi, carrots, last night’s orzo, fried eggs on top. I call it “Marco Polo Goes to Incheon,” and make a couple of extra gyoza for R., who’s still hungry. Quiet, warm.
Nothing’s on fire in Kings Canyon itself, but the burn follows you around and stings your nostrils, and the vista turnoffs that are meant to open onto miles of rock instead show a blank blue-gray. You feel like you’re driving into the void. (Bashō: mist and rain, can’t see Mount Fuji, interesting...)
Up on the trail were live pines, and blackened trunks and limbs shining with mineral deadness from some earlier fire. That’s the world, half alive and half dead. The world to come, half alive and half dead. (I read somewhere that Venus isn’t a possible scenario because Earth is too far from the sun. We’re just the asteroid, powerless constituents of the asteroid.) Squirrels, robins, woodpeckers, nuthatches, lizards, flies all moving around, doing what they know.
I got to a stream, a gust of wind came up and then a huge report, much deeper than gunfire; I thought some idiot must be setting off artillery from the cliffs. Then one of the huge blackened trunks slowly began to tip, shedding branches against its neighbors as it gathered speed, slammed to earth thirty feet away and raised a huge cloud of reddish dust. I was there to hear it. The birds did nothing for a space—thirty seconds?—but the wind and water were still moving, and soon the forest’s whole quiet machine started up again.
An hour before sunset I took the shorter trail to pay respects to the sequoias, which have a lot of companion manzanitas growing between—because their shallow root structures are compatible? Because the taller trees don’t grow thick and light gets through the canopies? I was so exhausted and happy that night in the tent cabin, curled up with my novel from Brazil and my old jazz guitar, practicing chord shapes up and down the neck. Cooked chili on the camp stove and ate it looking west, washed out the pan at the bathhouse and used it for granola the next morning at first light. I actually wanted to get up early. I’ve hardly had a coherent thought from start to finish in years.
My shoulder came back. For a while lifting my right arm brought only pain and incapacity, and even once stronger it suffered a queasy shift-and-pop on certain motions, especially washing hair in the shower, as some part of the architecture decided to try out liberating new living arrangements. But in the past couple of weeks it’s finally firmed up, solid, strong and rather more prominent to the touch than before. Don’t fuck with it.
For family reasons we’ve been traveling a lot through the new, hot western world; I’ve been reading, mostly good books (see lower right), but also the entirely of a T.C. Boyle story in The New Yorker, I guess because it was set in Kingman, AZ and I have a ghoulish fascination with Kingman, AZ. Fiction that thinks of itself as “ethical,” or anyhow takes ethics as its meat because that’s what magazine fiction has traditionally laid out on the butcher’s block. It’s correct in the way that a sonata is correct. But there’s no reason that these particular formal cuts had to be enacted against ethics as such: it could have been metallurgy. It could have been baseball scores. The actual revealed attitude toward ethics is something between sham and indifference. Statesmen still hoping to improve the youth are not encouraged.
The first doctor wanted to put screws and a plate in my shoulder. Luckily my brother-in-law, also an orthopedic surgeon, took a look at the x-rays and said I should go see a second doctor, who reassured me that it’s healing just fine on its own without encouragement from the knife.
While I’ve been laid up, the folks at the press are introducing my book to the marketplace by way of trying to crowdfund the first print run (i.e. “is it worth the paper it’s printed on?”). I hope it will be! The financial stakes of course aren’t the highest; it’s the economy of attention whose scarcity is being tried, and if you’ve read this far we’ve already beaten the odds. I should be saying thank you. If what comes out instead is “As you love me, would you buy a book?”, I hope you’ll take it charitably, as a quirk of translation.
I broke my crow
R. is more beautiful by the day—this even though my own face is coded in hers. Everything that’s ill-proportioned and wrong when I look in the mirror is balanced and natural in her. A weekend in the woods taught her to ride a Razor scooter and she’s since been tearing up our block, to and from the school and the library, much faster than I can follow. I’ve been especially slow since last week, when she dared me to ride the scooter down a hill and I somehow thought the dare worth accepting. Now I have a clavicle broken into three pieces, a wrenched coracoclavicular ligament (it connects your collarbone to your crow) and an enormous yellow bruise over the front of my shoulder, as if a highlighter pen just exploded in my shirt pocket. I’m reading, learning to write by dictating into my phone, not good for much else.
By coincidence, The Life of Henry Brulard was next up on the stack. Stendhal turning fifty in a dreary government post is something like my bout of enforced idleness just shy of forty; in either case the active life is foreclosed (which must be more galling for Stendhal, poet of youthful energy) and one is thrown back on contemplation. Stendhal sketches the curve of his life: he’s on the downslope and wants to write about the period when he was still rising. The jerkiness of those contours reminds me of my own yellow shoulder in the mirror, which, having lost the support of its ligament, now drops precipitously from the bone.
The plot of childhood is an endless series of mistakes followed by endless corrections, and it would be unbearable without the plotless elements, those apparent encounters with human faculties in a ground state that, met unawares, seems to offer a brief for the religious idea that joy and beauty lie in the heart of things. R. has restored some of that ground state to the child self in my memory, and made it easier to forgive that child’s blunders. Likewise it becomes easier to understand life writing as a devotional practice, and not simply—by way of my jaundice toward American publishing—as something one falls back on for lack of other ideas.
I have no faith in the idea that intelligence in a child promises superiority in the man. In a genre less subject to illusion, because after all its monuments survive, all the bad painters I have known have done astonishing things around the age of eight or ten giving promise of genius.
Alas, nothing gives promise of genius, perhaps obstinacy is a sign of it.
Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard
An Ambition To Squint At My Verses In Print
Crow picking at a dead starling, the live starlings wheel and screech. It’s all right. “Everything is just as it is. You don’t have to like it, but you have to see it.”
The “purple ghost” maple is most vivid when the leaves are just budding, those curled skeleton fingers, minuscule. Magenta more than purple. That same magenta in the two-winged seed pods hanging below.
J. says she’s been far from home, that writing is home. (I know where my home is—not unlike a shit-hawk in the snow...) She says my writing always puts forth an indifferent, take-it-or-leave-it stance, which might be why it so often strikes the world without impact.
In the midst of this muddle I quite forgot to mention that my book has a publisher now! It will be out in January, we think. I need to orient some things around it.