happy birthday Mr. Meat!
Thank you, comment box! We hauled a terrible old dishwasher to the recycling center, J. took me out for coffee and a pizza lunch and we bought a small Japanese maple that is supposed to get bigger in the elevated garden if we treat it right. Back out for burritos in the evening, I helped R. with her math homework while they got wrapped: Zeus gives Paris a bunch of apples, Paris eats half his supply then another half apple, half the remaining supply then another half apple, half the remaining supply and so on; Paris really likes apples. J. says they should have checked whether Paris was a pig. We imagine three put-out goddesses waiting around the backdrop.
R., now eight, takes the world racing, on her bike or otherwise, and swallows pretty much anything it throws at her, until all at once she can’t. At school, in public, she takes it like Marcus Aurelius. But at home she’ll collapse on herself, and it’s awful how quickly she can lock herself into a small container and lose her path out. I know how it is because I still do it as well, in my quieter way.
The spreading eucalyptuses at the BART station seem to have something enormous weighing them down. It must be all those Chinese paintings (not only Chinese paintings) that put me in the doubtful habit of giving moods to trees.
R.H. Blyth is making fun of me, but a dart so specifically honed must have been also turned back on himself.
Is the world bad, or Bad? Thomas Hardy thought it was Bad, and that for this very reason it gives us an opportunity for tragic integrity. If the world is Bad, let each man do zazen and get his satori, play and listen to the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues; paint pictures and look at the best of others daily; learn the most distant foreign language, and read its poetry in the original; build his own house, or at least a dog-kennel; climb hills or high trees, or join the fire-brigade; be a vegetarian and an out-and-out (impossible) pacifist. If a man cannot do these things, he may creep in a petty pace to death, or jump out of the window. A spiritually dead or unborn man makes the greatest art and religion look what it is anyhow, foolish.
The whole spine of Japan really was covered in cherry blossoms, in fifteen million shades between magenta and white. I feel so much more lenient toward all those mannered-seeming poets who swore they couldn’t tell if they were looking at blossoms or snow, after spending fifteen minutes myself staring at what looked like snow on the Eiheiji roof tiles (because Lord, was it a cold morning), pacing back and forth to see if the color shifted and finally realizing it was the reflection of the sky.
Mist around the moon, in those poems, is a sign of spring on the way. Winter is clearer.
The gong rings. Bow to Dōgen’s ashes. Cross the moss bridge and go downhill into town for a hot can of vending machine coffee, hot soba at the souvenir shop.
From the new house to the office it’s 8.4 miles by bike and 8.4 miles back again. I can shorten the trip with trains if necessary, but I do feel better on those days that I ride the whole way, less because of “exercise” than from having successfully gone over the land. I used to walk everywhere, when Berkeley was cheaper and grimier and we could live there… now, lying in bed, I look out the window into the bend of the ravine in which the new house is placed, and think okay, this slope here, that stand of trees. The moon crosses the power lines from left to right. The water flows the same way.
At the start of the month I drove with R. to Reno, and even doing idiotic battle with traffic I felt the old wideness of western highways, always an easier place to think. The sky as a giant’s brainpan: Ymir, I think, with cerebral floss of clouds in the cold upper air.
The perpendicular to that would be the woods of Eiheiji, where I spent the night in March. Vertical trees tucked under a vertical mountain, and the temple an extremely placed place between stream and slope, unshakeable even if the individual buildings had burned down and been remade a few times. They got us up before dawn to climb to the dharma hall. I made the mistake of putting on too-small temple slippers and had an awkward time on the stairs. The hall enormous, black with assemblages of hanging gold, chanting and incense. Suppose that necessity and freedom have an infinite solution set, but the monastic model is easiest to express because all the other solutions are series expansions where you just have to keep writing out terms.
I’ve been crashing on the couch around 9:30 and not coming back to life until next morning. J. says it’s the bike ride, and she’s probably right. But the bike, too, seems to be one of the only places where I can think.
The other night I came across a quote from Sartre of all people:
L’Américain, avant de faire des livres, a souvent exercé des métiers manuels, il y revient entre deux romans, sa vocation lui apparaît au ranch, à l’atelier, dans les rues de la ville, il ne voit pas dans la littérature un moyen de proclamer sa solitude, mais une occasion d’y échapper… il songe moins à la gloire qu’il ne rêve de fraternité.
The American writer has often practiced manual occupations before writing his books; he goes back to them. Between two novels, his vocation seems to be on the ranch, in the shop, in the city streets; he does not see in literature a means of proclaiming his solitude, but an opportunity of escaping it… He muses less about glory than he dreams of fraternity.
I don’t think Jean-Paul knew much about American culture, and the economic order he thought he was describing is certainly long gone. (Je doute s’il existe une bourgeoisie aux États-Unis.) So imagine me all the more annoyed to see there (substituting the ranch with the data center, and correcting the last sentence to allow for the possibility of sorority) something I still recognized.
Some blocks in West Portal are so solemnly tricked out and terraced so green that they achieve the impression of having been there forever, like Europe or the Federal Reserve. Then an avenue opens to the water and reminds you the whole thing is rooted in two feet of loam over the sands. Quiet and foggy, no shops open on Sunday, occasional car with its hunched, grayed driver coming to a careful halt at the stop signs. The offices are all advertising wills and trusts—sad corner of the city that made you rich, where you now wait to die.
Of course it doesn’t take long to walk up to the Sunset, which is more alive if cars are the measure of life. But here too, with the broad straight avenues, the theme-and-variations row houses and the sun a flickering light bulb in the moving fog, I always feel like I’m dreaming.
Signs of Fine Weather to Come
Then, with tight throats, the ravens repeat their clear caws three or four
times, and often in the high perches where they bed down at night,
happy with some odd, unaccustomed pleasure, cry
raucously among themselves amid the leaves. They delight,
storms over and gone, to see again their small broods and sweet nests.
I hardly believe that their instincts are indeed divinely given
or that Fate awarded them greater foreknowledge of things
but rather that when the weather and intermittent spring
rains alter course and Jupiter, soaked by the South Winds,
thickens what was just now thin and makes the thick loose,
the responses of their senses change, and their hearts receive
perceptions other than those left when the wind pursued
the clouds—hence that harmony of birdsong in the fields,
cattle lowing happily, and the ravens’ guttural exalting.
—Virgil, Georgics 1.410-423, tr. Janet Lembke
8 September 1934. What a relief the Mont Ste. Victoire after all the anthropomorphised landscape... Cézanne seems to have been the first to see landscape & state it as material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever... Ruysdael’s Entrance to the Forest—there is no entrance anymore nor any commerce with the forest, its dimensions are its secret & it has no communications to make.
16 September 1934. I do not see any possibility of relationship, friendly or unfriendly, with the unintelligible, and what I feel in Cézanne is precisely the absence of a rapport that was all right for Rosa or Ruysdael for whom the animising mode was valid, but would have been false for him, because he had the sense of incommensurability not only with life of such a different order as landscape but even with life of his own order, even with the life—one feels looking at the self-portrait in the Tate, not the Cézanne chauve but with the big hat—operative in himself.
—Beckett, letters to Thomas McGreevy
Dear College Preparatory School Alumni Newsletter
Sun in Cancer, and the nostalgic vapors and exhalations of spring all dried up for the scorched-grass season. I’d like to go slack under the hot sky, like my daughter, but we have tasks.
I published my book (and mouthed off about it elsewhere so I don’t have to do it here). I don’t want to make it out to be more than it was, and really don’t want to minimize the efforts of everyone who helped it along. I know what the next one will be, another novel (possibly I’m not cut out for anything but novels), but for the last few months I’ve been making sketches at the edge of the diving board rather than fish out a paragraph I could admit to.
Circumstances have abetted. Our little duplex by the train tracks got sold out from underneath us to a couple from Albany, who seem to have paid an actual million dollars for the privilege of being our new landlords. Why on earth? Apparently the answer is that they’re going to tear out the back and rebuild it on a more expensive scale. Everyone wants three bedrooms (only cowards stop at one child). But before the city permits get approved, we are fled, and after some very fast talking have landed three miles north at the extreme heliopause of BART service and KALX reception. We bought the place—a fact so fraught in this area, where it’s so depressingly certain that every time you meet someone new, the conversation will turn to the cost of housing within ten minutes. I always see it coming and I can never head it off. Anyhow, for my petty qualms I get a proper office at last, a yard overlooking a church parking lot where they're installing a preschool, on the other side a hill where the rooftops pile up like Cézanne’s views of Gardanne. In this neighborhood houses are priced by their “views,” and we don’t have one of those views, but our slope is high enough that when you go outside you find the wind tossing around tree canopies with great freedom.
(This is boring, the cult of the house is boring. Also satisfying, and therefore dangerous.)
So inside we decorate, filling it with ourselves—and just the other day I was complaining that the coastal metropolises are now enormous arenas in which to meet yourself over and over. You can’t be surprised. But in the house I do get surprised. After so many years packed in with everyone breathing on everyone else, it’s weird to lose track of the other organisms (now two humans, one cat) that share the larger space—they might have gone outside, or gone to sleep, or installed themselves in some new closet, without any of it showing up on sonar. The long, narrow interior corridor has no windows of its own, and I enter the dim space never quite confident of what I’ll find at the end.
I also went to Japan, but wait a moment.
Glistered shell upon the bedclothes,
weep not for the pink and larval
beauty you in sadness squandered:
time was yours, a wealth of rubble
transient to fret love, and envy
vivid to the world portioned.
Dappled heart inside a raincoat,
wet your eyes upon the verdure
of the puddled traffic signal.
All things human are admitted.
Generation floods, and licit
hunger, to be slantwise held.