Friday, February 20, 2009

`The Thought of Going'

The day started with a cruise ship anchored offshore, a hulk out of place against a blue cloudless sky and blue-green water. We had been warned: The ship’s arrival signals the invasion of Loreto by loud, drunken Americans with too much money. We kept our distance and they were gone by early evening.

I’d be happy never to visit Mexico again but don’t regret having seen it once, and already feel the melancholy of vacation’s end. When young we’re eager for novelty and change; older, we prize the familiar. Each course, pursued exclusively, turns into a cul-de-sac. Living for a week in a house on the beach, I appreciate the dual nature of the sea, its constancy and mutability. Like Sophocles, Matthew Arnold and a million others, Edgar Bowers looks at the sea and sees human destiny. Here is “An Afternoon at the Beach”:

“I’ll go among the dead to see my friend.
The place I leave is beautiful: the sea
Repeats the winds’ far swell in its long sound,
And, there beside it, houses solemnly
Shine with the modest courage of the land,
While swimmers try the verge of what they see.

“I cannot go, although I should pretend
Some final self whose phantom eye could see
Him who because he is not cannot change.
And yet the thought of going makes the sea,
The land, the swimmers, and myself seem strange,
Almost as strange as they will someday be.”

“The thought of going.” Bowers means death but each departure is a rehearsal for the final going, and each return a promise of hope. I’ve been rereading Daniel Fuchs’ Brooklyn novels this week, pleased that my younger self once enjoyed them so much I immediately reread them after reading them for the first time. The books are modest, funny and full of small wonders. In the first novel, Summer in Williamsburg, 20-year-old Philip Hayman returns home to Brooklyn after a disturbing visit with his older brother, a low-level gangster in the Catskills. Upstate is country and goyishe; Williamsburg is urban and Jewish. Hayman comes home on Friday evening, the start of the Sabbath, and though his family is “not very orthodox,” he witnesses an ancient ritual, itself a sort of return:

“Earlier, when the dark had first come, over his book he watched, without seeming to watch, his mother light one candle with a match and use this as a taper for the other two. This was, perhaps, a simple thing, but he always observed the ritual, and it affected him. She would soften the heels of the other candles with the flame, press them into the sockets of the candlesticks, and light them one after the other. Then she covered her head with a napkin, placed her fingertips to her eyelids, and moving her lips in a murmur, withdrawn for the moment and apart from the world, she recited the ancient prayer. There was always something strange, a little awesome, in the spectacle.”


ricpic said...

Is there anything more impoverishing than the loss of ritual? I can't think of it.

Fran Manushkin said...

My mother used to do this but never explained the ritual at all. I concluded that she might've been a witch.